Pope Francis returns three fragments of the Parthenon to Greece | Parthenon marbles

Pope Francis’ desire to right a wrong has led to the official return to Greece from the Vatican of three ornately carved fragments that once adorned the Parthenon.

As the sun set over Athens on Friday, the sculptures were unveiled on the top floor of the Acropolis Museum, purpose-built within sight of the 5th-century monument to house the Marbles.

“This act of Pope Francis has historical significance and has a positive impact on many levels,” Greece’s spiritual leader, Archbishop Ieronymos II, told the crowded gallery of the Acropolis Museum where the works will be displayed. “My personal wish is that others imitate him.”

A much larger collection of works removed from the temple in what are now considered highly controversial circumstances over 200 years ago are still held by the British Museum. The repatriated objects had also been part of the collections of the Vatican Museums for more than two centuries.

The fragments depicting a boy’s head, a horse’s head and a bearded man’s head were not only returned to where they had been carved 5,000 years ago; their return marked one more step in bringing together works of art considered the culmination of classical art, officials said.

A horse's head from Selene's four-horse chariot, one of the fragments returned to the Acropolis Museum, with the ancient Parthenon temple in the background.
Pope Francis’ decision had “historical significance”, said Greece’s spiritual leader, Archbishop Ieronymos II. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

Calling the pontiff’s decision heroic, Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said: “Initiatives like these show…how the pieces of the Parthenon can be brought together, healing the wounds caused by barbaric hands. so many years ago.”

On Friday, the delicate task of reinstating the relics involved gloved workers on a mechanized ladder removing the plaster casts that had been in their place. As the third fragment – the bearded man’s head – was inserted among the carved relief panels, some of the assembled people wept in disbelief. A minute of silence was then followed by applause.

A sculpture of a bearded man's head (right), next to the replica it now replaces.
A sculpture of a bearded man’s head (right), next to the replica it now replaces. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

Francis announced in December that he wanted to donate it to Ieronymos as “a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow the ecumenical path of truth.” The head of the Orthodox Church immediately agreed to donate them to the Acropolis Museum.

From the outset, the Vatican sought to tone down the rhetoric that raged over the Parthenon sculptures, including those in the possession of the British Museum.

Its officials said the donation was a religiously-inspired decision rather than a bilateral state-to-state return that could or should be emulated elsewhere. The Vatican Museums hold other priceless artifacts that indigenous groups would also like to see returned.

Addressing the repatriation ceremony as head of the Vatican delegation, Bishop Brian Farrell stressed that the decision to return the fragments had “matured in the context of (Francis’) fraternal relations with the Orthodox Church.”

But while the gesture underscored the growing “spiritual closeness” between the two Christian institutions, the pope had clearly chosen sides as well. Closing his speech, Farrell said, “We assure you of our innermost joy at the fulfillment of your rightful wish to have the Parthenon fragments at home in their place of origin.”

In recent years, Greece has intensified its campaign for the reunification of the sculptures, spurred in part by “optimistic” signs of a shift in public opinion in Britain.

The two countries have been at odds for decades over the removal of statuary from the 5th-century BC temple at the behest of Lord Elgin, then Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Athens has long maintained that the antiquities, acquired by the British Museum in 1816, were violently detached from the monument using marble saws. Hopes of a resolution to the cultural feud following widespread reports that the British Museum was engaged in secret talks aimed at ‘a win-win solution’ with Greece appeared dashed last week when Rishi Sunak dismissed any suggestions according to which the treasures were on course to be returned to Athens.

But Greek officials say the Vatican’s decision will undoubtedly put additional pressure on London “to do the right thing”.

“The pope has set a global example,” said Professor Nikos Stampolidis, director of the Acropolis Museum, calling the repatriated fragments particularly important because they came from three different areas of the Parthenon.

“We are doubly grateful and honored that he chose to do so as head of the Catholic Church and not as head of the Vatican,” Stampolidis said. “In doing so, he spoke not only for the Holy See, but for so many other people.”


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