Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston: A New Venue
Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston, Texas
This article takes a look back at an exceptional museum exhibit that once graced our city for a time. Those of us who got to see it were fortunate to have had that experience!
If you were not among its visitors, take a look at what you missed and learn about how it came to be. The story is a fascinating one, to be sure!
Looking at the modern exterior of the building gave no hint as to the treasure it held inside for a time. Concrete and stonework plus some splashing water sounds greeted visitors as they drew near the entry door into the Byzantine Fresco Chapel.
Upon entering the building, a distinctly different atmosphere was immediately encountered. From an ordinarily bright exterior, people passed into a softer lit interior. A quietude and feeling of reverence prevailed in the space, much like entering a hallowed church. This started even in the first passageway to the real masterpiece of the chapel, which was its central interior.
A dastardly deed took place at one time. There was a small chapel in Lysi, Cyprus. What it contained was a treasure beyond measure! 13th-century frescoes adorned its walls and ceiling. They were beautifully painted and had adorned that chapel for centuries.
At some point, that magnificent chapel came to the attention of some people with devious intent. Those art thieves knew that there would be a market for those ancient frescoes. So, probably in the dead of night, they started chopping out pieces of the walls containing those magnificent paintings.
The thieves did not care that they were ruining what had stood the test of time, and had historical significance. Obviously, they only sought to enrich themselves by selling what were now fragments of an entire masterpiece.
At some point, after the destruction had taken place, those fresco fragments entered the art market and were for sale.
Dominique de Menil
When those fresco pieces came to the attention of Dominique de Menil, she recognized that they were something special. She also must have realized that some of the pieces fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
Dominique de Menil paid the price for the chopped up and stolen frescoes and secured them. She then started the search for the real owners. Had she not approached it that way, the fragments of art would probably have been sold off piecemeal and scattered throughout the world never again to be repatriated. As it was, some parts were still missing, but what was saved is magnificent!
With the consent of the Church of Cyprus and after two years of restoration, she had her architect son Francois de Menil erect this structure. It housed the most extensive intact Byzantine frescoes in all of the Western Hemisphere.
Exact dimensions of the original chapel in Cyprus had been replicated inside of the larger building. The materials, however, were completely different. They showcased the ancient frescoes in a new light. In a darkened space utilizing black steel, dark woods, and opaque glass, the frescoes appeared in an illuminated modern setting.
Viewing the Art
Benches were provided so that patrons visiting this consecrated space could sit and comfortably look up at the dome. On the underside of the dome was represented "Christ, the Almighty." Smaller jewel-like frescoes of the Virgin Mary plus the archangels Gabriel and Michael were also there.
The frescoes had been preserved for posterity. It was a privilege to see them in person to realize their full magnificence.
Photos were not allowed to be taken, but the video below shows the frescoes.
Frescoes on Loan
Dealing with the Cypriot government and the Church of Cyprus, Dominique de Menil attained the rights to restore and display the frescoes. They would be returned to Cyprus after 20 years.
March 4, 2012, was the last day for people in Houston, Texas, to view those magnificent frescoes in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum. For quite some time, the building was empty after the removal of the frescoes. The structure is now being used to hold year-long art exhibit installations of different types.
You can see the very first exhibit titled "The Infinity Machine" since the return of the frescoes to Cyprus in the video below.
Did you get to visit this museum while the 13th-century frescoes were there?
Questions & Answers
© 2020 Peggy Woods