NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A Houston-based museum exhibiting a set of rare 13th-century frescoes that were looted from Cyprus more than three decades ago has agreed to return them, the leader of the divided island's Orthodox Christian church said Friday.
Archbishop Chrysostomos II said the Menil Collection plans to return the Byzantine frescoes early next year after the church insisted that they not "allow them to remain there even for one second longer."
"I salute this decision by the Menil Collection because embarking on a court battle would honor neither us nor the Collection," the Archbishop said.
Antiquities smugglers looted the frescoes from the Ayios Themomianos church in northern Cyprus following a 1974 Turkish invasion that split the island into a Turkish-speaking north and a Greek-speaking south.
Menil Collection founder Dominique de Menil obtained the frescoes in 1983 and struck an agreement with the Cyprus church to keep and exhibit them at a purpose-built chapel in Houston.
A decade later, the Cyprus church granted the museum a loan extension until February 2012 in recognition of its efforts to reassemble and restore the fragmented frescoes.
But Chrysostomos said he turned down requests to keep the frescoes longer, offering instead to dispatch an iconographer to recreate them on the chapel's dome and apses, along with a gift of 10 late-19th and early-20th century icons.
"While this moment is bittersweet, the story of these frescoes — from their rescue, to their long-term loan to us, and now to their return — very much reflects the essence of the Menil Collection, its focus on the aesthetic and the spiritual, and our responsible stewardship of works from other nations and cultures," Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection, said in a Sept. 23 letter to friends and supporters.
The frescoes depict Christ Pantocrator surrounded by a frieze of angels, as well as the Preparation of the Throne attended by Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist.
Another section depicts the Virgin flanked by Archangels Michael and Gabriel.
The Cyprus Antiquities Department will oversee the transportation of the frescoes back to Europe, department Director Maria Hadjicosti said.
The church says scores of religious artifacts, including icons and mosaics, were looted from Greek Cypriot churches in the island's north.
Many have since appeared on the international art market. Chrysostomos said "millions" have been spent purchasing them with the purpose of repatriating them. The church's biggest success was the recovery of several priceless 6th century mosaics.
"We'll rest only when all our antiquities, all our ecclesiastical objects return to where they belong," he said.
Christianity in Cyprus stretches to the faith's earliest years. The Apostle Paul is said to have preached the gospel in Cyprus in A.D. 45 and converted the island's Roman governor Sergius Paulus — the first Roman official to undergo conversion.