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A Bittersweet Goodbye to the Restored Byzantine


Chapel Frescoes ORIGIN COLUMNIST | Carolyn Farb


W


e will long remember the heroic efforts and stewardship of Dominique de Menil in


bringing the two remarkable 13th century sacred frescoes to Houston. Thousands of people have visited the consecrated Byzantine Fresco Chapel designed by her brilliant son, architect Francois de Menil, who expressed interest in the assignment and was commissioned to design the chapel. Francois did not create a replica of their original home in Lysi; instead, he created a space that would return the frescoes to their original spiritual significance. Mrs. de Menil established the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Foundation to manage the fundraising and administration of the project’s construction and maintenance. Plans were approved by His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos II, and construction began in 1994. The chapel was open to the public in 1997.


Everyone realized that the long-term loan would not last forever, as the frescoes belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus. For two decades, they have served as images of spiritual enlightenment and beauty on the Menil campus. Regrettably, the church has declined to extend the agreement which expires in February, 2012.


One cannot imagine the chapel without the frescoes, but on the positive side, this unique stewardship created a new model by which museums operate in areas of cultural property.


Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, Houston, Texas Photo: Paul Warchol


and John the Baptist. The apse painting depicts Mary in a blue gown, standing on a red cushion decorated with the fleur-de-lis motif, her arms in a praying position. On her breast is a medallion depicting the bust of Christ.


In the 1980s, the frescoes were originally situated in the Cyprus chapel’s dome and apse, but were stolen by thieves in the Turkish-occupied section of Cyprus and cut into 38 fragments to be sold. Dominique recognized the paintings not only as objects of great beauty, but also felt their sacred religious and spiritual nature deserved to be restored. Through her research, the provenance of the frescoes revealed that Cyprus was their place of origin, not Turkey. She later proposed to the Holy Archbishopric of Cyprus that she negotiate on behalf of the church to purchase the frescoes. Dominique met with those representing the thieves and paid a ransom for the frescoes. She had the Madonna and apse transferred to London, where they were restored after three years to their original magnificence.


Photo: Paul Warchol


The dome painting portrays Christ in the heavens surrounded by 12 angels, each robed in different colors, making gestures of supplication. The archangels Michael and Gabriel flank figures of the Virgin Mary


It seems like only yesterday that Domin- ique asked me to meet her at Richmond Hall. I watched Dominique lie down on the floor, motioning for me to do the same. She mentioned with a smile that Richard Gere had been there the week before. Together, we gazed upward at the luminous apse and dome that would find a home in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. Dominique then asked me to cochair the fundraising event for the Chapel. Who could refuse such a request?


In 1996, we cochaired a benefit on behalf of the Byzantine Chapel Museum with Robert Wilson, entitled A Night at the Opera, following the premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts, a brilliant new production of Gertrude Stein’s and Virgil Thompson’s opera. I can remember working through that holiday season on sponsorship letters under her careful eye. Houston’s arts patrons came together, providing the necessary support for the chapel. Texas artists made sacrifices, donating their works to be auctioned off that evening during the successful event, with Dominique herself purchasing Sharon Kopriva’s Catherine’s Wheel.


This nostalgic trip down memory lane reminds me once again how I miss my friend Dominique. We shall always remember the beautiful frescoes. Thank you, Dominique and Francois, for allowing Houston to share in this, if only for a short time. Our lives have been enriched through your philanthropy and generosity.


Photo: Paul Warchol OriginMagazine.com | 51


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