Pope donates marble fragments of Vatican Parthenon to Greek Orthodox Church

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Pope Francis has ordered the Vatican Museums to return three Parthenon fragments to Greece amid a global reckoning in which Western institutions have begun returning remains and artifacts to their countries of origin – or have refused requests to do so.

The fragments of marble sculptures, including remains of a 520-foot high frieze from the 5th century B.C. which once covered the outer walls of the famous temple and depicting a procession for the goddess Athena, have been kept in the collections of the Vatican Museums since the 19th century.

In a statement released on Friday, the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport expressed its gratitude for the Pope’s “generous” decision and hoped the move would put pressure on the British Museum, which owns dozens of Parthenon fragments, the controversial Elgin -Return marbles. Avoiding the thorny issues of restitution and repatriation, Pope Francis described the return as a “donation” to Greek Archbishop Ieronymus II and “a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow the ecumenical path of truth,” the Associated Press reported.

The Parthenon fragments have been the subject of debate in recent weeks after a Greek newspaper report said the British Museum is in secret talks with the Greek government about the return of the Elgin marbles.

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During the Venetian siege of the Acropolis in 1687, many of the Parthenon’s friezes and decorative elements were destroyed. In the early 19th century, British diplomat Thomas Bruce, better known as Lord Elgin, sent more than half of what was left to Britain – a move critics, including Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, saw as stealing. (Elgin notoriously wrote that such artifacts would look good in his home.)

Today, most of the surviving marbles are in the British Museum or the Acropolis Museum, while a handful survive elsewhere.

The British Museum denied claims it would return the artifacts, in a statement that while it is open to a “partnership” with Greece, “we will not dismantle our magnificent collection as it tells a unique story of our shared humanity.” move and rely on anti-deaccession policies.

What makes a collection “great” and who gets to hear that “unique story” is a hotly debated topic among museums these days. For some institutions — like the Smithsonian, which recently updated its collections policy — the moral imperative to return some objects outweighs other concerns. The Pope’s decision to return Greek artifacts is one of many similar acts around the world.

Recently, several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, have returned to Nigeria artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes, stolen by the British in a deadly invasion in 1897. Last year, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, once on display in the Bible Museum and thought to have been looted from an Iraqi museum, was returned.

This is not the first time the Vatican Museums have returned objects from their collections. In October, the museums returned three ancient mummies to Peru, and in 2008 they returned a Parthenon marble to Greece on a year-long loan. It might not be the last either. When the Pope visited Canada this summer, indigenous groups across the country asked for the return of several objects located in the Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum of the Vatican.

For now, however, the pope’s decision appears to be focused on restoring ties with the Greek Orthodox Church. Pope Francis last met with Archbishop Ieronymos II during a visit to Greece in December 2021, during which he apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in fueling divisions with the Greek Orthodox Church. Tensions ran high on this trip; A Greek Orthodox priest was caught on video shouting “Pope, you are a heretic” at the Catholic leader, reflecting historic distrust between the churches.

Artifacts the Pope wants to bring back to Greece include a marble head of a boy, a horse’s head and a bearded man’s head. The Acropolis Museum in Athens has a Parthenon gallery built to house the marbles, but it’s not yet clear where they will go once they are back in Greece. A date for her return has not been announced.

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