In 1983 Dominique de Menil was presented with the opportunity of purchasing two dismantled frescoes dating from the 13th century. The exceptional quality and spiritual significance of the works immediately struck Mrs. de Menil, who resolved to rescue the frescoes, which were purportedly being sold on behalf of an art dealer. Provenance research revealed Cyprus as their place of origin and, with this knowledge and permission from the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, the Menil Foundation purchased the frescoes on behalf of the Church. The Menil Foundation subsequently entered into a formal agreement with the Church that granted permission to restore the frescoes (a three-year process) and a long-term loan of the works for exhibition in Houston.
At the heart of the Menil’s mission is the belief that art and spirituality are central to a shared human experience and are powerful forces in contemporary society—and that institutions have a responsibility to preserve and present objects as stewards, safeguarding their future. A key aspect of the shared vision of the Menil Foundation and the Orthodox Church of Cyprus was that the original spiritual purpose of the frescoes be restored. To this end, a chapel was constructed on the Menil campus and consecrated especially for the exhibition of the frescoes—a space that honored their spiritual significance without creating a replica of their original home, a chapel in the town of Lysi. Designed by architect Francois de Menil, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum opened to the public in 1997; hundreds of thousands visited in the 15 years the frescoes were on view in Houston.
The landmark agreement between the Menil Foundation and the Church of Cyprus concluded in March of 2012 with the Menil Foundation returning the frescoes to Cyprus. Following a final liturgy led by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrois of America, the Chapel was deconsecrated on Sunday, March 4, 2012. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel served as a place of peace and contemplation, as well as host to liturgical ceremonies, sacred music, performances, and educational programs.
In March of 2015, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel was reopened with The Infinity Machine, a site-specific installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, the first of a series of long-term installations planned for the chapel building.