ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Finally this hour, a journey that began nearly 40 years ago is coming to an end. A set of 13th century frescoes were plundered from a church in Cyprus. They ended up in a museum in Houston and now they're headed home.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn tells us about the frescoes' odyssey.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It all started in the summer of 1974, when the Turkish Army invaded Cyprus and nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriats became refugees fleeing south.

JOSEF HELFENSTEIN: And so all the churches and, you know, homes and art was left behind and, after years, some of these churches started to be looted and that happened to this church.

GOODWYN: Josef Helfenstein is the director of the Menil Collection in Houston. Helfenstein says hundreds of Greek Orthodox churches were abandoned, including a tiny limestone 13th century chapel outside the small town of Lysi. It took several years before somebody noticed the two incredible 800-year-old frescoes inside, but somebody eventually figured it out. They took a chainsaw and brutally hacked them out of the dome in 38 pieces.

HELFENSTEIN: The only way to get them out of there was to cut them in pieces and then they were shipped to Germany, were offered to Mrs. De Menil, were presented as found frescoes from Anatolia in eastern Turkey.

GOODWYN: The dome fresco portrays Christ in heaven surrounded by 12 angels, each robed in a different color. The archangels Michael and Gabriel flank the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist as a medallion illustrates the throne that's been prepared for the Lord.

Helfenstein says Dominique de Menil, standing in a Munich warehouse in front of chopped up 13th century frescoes, knew these were not works of art that had just been miraculously discovered in some Turkish home.

HELFENSTEIN: That was a lie and so, Mrs. De Menil was, of course, very quickly suspicious and she had very good advisors. She had a world class specialist of Byzantine art.

GOODWYN: De Menil told the Turkish dealer she wanted to take pictures of the frescoes to look at while she pondered her decision to buy, but that was a trick. Instead, her researchers painstakingly tracked the frescoes back to Cyprus. It took more than a year. De Menil contacted the archbishop and offered to ransom the frescoes from the so-called owners and then restore them at a cost of over a million dollars. In return, she wanted to display them in Houston before returning them.

HELFENSTEIN: What it means is that we are the only place west of Cyprus to have frescoes of that significance.

GOODWYN: The last 15 years, the frescoes have been on display in Houston at a $4 million chapel that was designed and built especially for them on the Menil museum campus. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have worshipped there, listened to music concerts and education programs or simply sat in quiet appreciation under their 13th century gaze.

But now, it's time for the frescoes to go. Reverend Demosthenis Demosthenous has traveled from Cyprus to accompany them home. He says what's been stolen from Greek Orthodox churches is heartbreaking.

REVEREND DEMOSTHENIS DEMOSTHENOUS: Twenty-three thousand icons dated from 12th to 20th century, most oil paintings, even mosaics, they are lost and they are found all over the world.

GOODWYN: Reverend Demosthenous says what Dominique de Menil did shines as an example to the collecting world. Instead of quietly purchasing the frescoes for her museum in the guise of rescuing them for mankind and then defending her acquisition against all subsequent ownership claims, she negotiated an historic agreement with the Church of Cyprus.

The black-robed priest beams as he talks, smiles lighting up his bearded face. It's his first time to America.

DEMOSTHENOUS: I really - I am really, really, really happy to be here in America. I always remember Neil Armstrong and Martin Luther King.

GOODWYN: And Dominique de Menil, who died in 1997. It's a short, but strong list of favorite Americans. The Byzantine frescoes arrive in Cyprus Friday.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.