In 1983 Dominique de Menil was presented with the opportunity of purchasing two frescoes dating from the 13th century, which had been dismantled into 38 pieces. 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 in hand and permission from the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, the Menil purchased the frescoes on behalf of the Church. The Menil subsequently entered into a formal agreement with the Church, which granted permission to restore the frescoes (a three-year process), resulting in a long-term loan of the works so they might be exhibited in Houston.
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 consecrated chapel was constructed on the Menil campus especially for the exhibition of the works—a space that honors the spiritual significance of the frescoes without creating a mere replica of their original home. Designed by architect Francois de Menil, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel opened to the public in 1997; hundreds of thousands have visited since.
The frescoes in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel originate from a small Greek Orthodox chapel just outside the village of Lysi, Cyprus, in what is now the Turkish-occupied Famagusta district. A limestone building, the chapel is dedicated to Saint Themonianos and is believed to have been built as a votive sacred space in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. The identity of Saint Themonianos is unclear, though scholars have suggested he was either a little-known local saint or that “Themonianos” was a local nickname for a more well-known saint.
The frescoes were originally situated in the chapel’s dome and apse. The dome painting portrays Christ in the heavens surrounded by twelve angels, each robed in a different color and making gestures of supplication. The Archangels Michael and Gabriel flank figures of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, who make similar gestures of supplication towards a medallion centered below the bust of Christ which illustrates the throne prepared for Him. The apse painting depicts Mary flanked by outward-looking depictions of Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Mary wears a blue gown and tasseled red veil ending in fleurs-de-lis and stands on a red cushion decorated with the same motif, her arms in a praying posture. Centered on her breast is a medallion depicting the bust of Christ.
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. “We are honored to have been entrusted as stewards of these extraordinary frescoes and to have exhibited them for the people of Houston and the world in a remarkable building,” said Menil Director Josef Helfenstein. “The return of the frescoes to Cyprus is just one chapter in their long history. I hope everyone will join us for these programs as we celebrate the frescoes’ time in Houston and their return to their home country.” 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.