Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston: A New Venue

Updated on April 21, 2020
Peggy W profile image

I live in Houston, and I have worked as a nurse. My interests include art, traveling, reading, gardening, cooking, and our wonderful pets.

Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston
Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston | Source

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.

Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum Water Elements
Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum Water Elements | Source

Back Story

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.

Exterior of Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum
Exterior of Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum | Source

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.

The backyard of Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum
The backyard of Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum | Source

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.

The sidewalk leading to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum
The sidewalk leading to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum | Source

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?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2020 Peggy Woods


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      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi FlourishAnyway,

        Yes, it is excellent that the frescoes were saved and that the building now has a new purpose.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        3 weeks ago from USA

        It’s sad that people have to take what is not theirs, but it was quite a gesture of that woman to buy them on the art market and reunite them as she did. I’m glad a new purpose was found for the building.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Liz,

        I have to agree with you. At least the frescoes were not only returned but restored and pretty much kept together.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        6 weeks ago from UK

        This is a fascinating story. It's good to hear about the restoration of the frescoes and their subsequent return, but what a shame they were taken in the first place.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Lorna,

        Yes, throughout history, many valuable pieces of art have been stolen and even destroyed. I am so glad that this was salvaged and restored and returned to its rightful place.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Bill,

        That was a fascinating series of events that led up to this chapel being built in Houston. We were so fortunate to be able to see those ancient frescoes before they were returned to Cyprus.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Rosina,

        It is wonderful that the fresco was saved and ultimately restored to its rightful place.

      • Lorna Lamon profile image

        Lorna Lamon 

        6 weeks ago

        A wonderful and yet tragic story which reminds me of all the priceless artworks stolen during the war. It's amazing that they were saved and for the most part are still intact. Incredibly beautiful and as you mentioned Peggy a privilege to view. I will have to plan a trip to Cyprus.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        Very nice! Love the history that each building has. Life is fascinating, and the world around us a never-ending series of stories just waiting to be read.

      • surovi99 profile image

        Rosina S Khan 

        6 weeks ago

        Thank you, Peggy, for introducing the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston along with its back story. I really enjoyed it. Interesting hub indeed!


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