Published: January 31, 2012
Near the Rothko Chapel on the 30-acre Menil Collection campus in Houston is another chapel. Its design is contemporary, foretelling nothing of the contents for which it was built. Within are two Byzantine frescoes. The one in the apse depicts the Virgin flanked by archangels Michael and Gabriel. The other, in the dome, portrays Christ in the heavens surrounded by 12 angels. These Thirteenth Century Murals from Lysi, Cyprus, saw war, suffered destruction and fell into the hands of thieves before they ultimately came to be restored under the guardianship of the Menil Foundation. Soon they will return to Cyprus.
Despite the drama inherent in their Twentieth Century history, the frescoes themselves stand to be considered on their own artistic merits. Not only are the pigments that were dispersed in water 700 years ago still vibrant, the renderings of the images are masterful.
According to Annemarie Weyl Carr, scholar and author with restoration expert Laurence J. Morrocco of A Byzantine Masterpiece Recovered, the Thirteenth-Century Murals of Lysi, Cyprus , the chapel at Lysi is a stellar monument of Cypriot painting. It is in a league with such Cypriot monuments as Asinou, Lagoudera, Lythrankoi and Moutoullas.
The murals were originally situated in the dome and apse of what was a votive space dedicated to Saint Themonianos. They belong to the artistic tradition of Byzantium, that era of the Roman Empire that existed circa 324 to 1453.
Although they are large, it is conceivable that the murals are the work of a single artist. In broad terms, they follow the classic Byzantine scheme that evolved during the Ninth and Tenth Centuries. The dome of the building represents the heavens, with Christ as the Pantokrator †the “all ruler.” Angels are the courtiers of heaven and symbols of power. From here, the paintings begin to move into the human world. Mary is the greatest human and, as such, is honored in the apse. Prophets usually occupy the drum of the dome and Evangelists the triangular vaulting under the dome, or pendentives.
Still, the murals are filled with iconography that is uniquely Cypriot. For instance, the style in which the Virgin is portrayed, with a medallion of Christ on her breast, was a latecomer to Byzantine imagery and popular only on Cyprus until the middle of the Twelfth Century. The dome also has instances of unique Cypriot development.
Perhaps the most impressive characteristic of the murals is the interplay of image and curved surface. In the apse, the angels bend toward the Virgin in perfect context. The dome itself is not as seamless as it appears at first glance. There are countless irregularities, the experts state. The face of Christ is not symmetrical. The left eyebrow rises higher than the right and the beard sweeps to one side. These distortions, however, seem to add to the dome’s vitality.
Of course, none of this was visible when the frescoes first came to market. They appeared sub rosa, via a Turkish dealer who was eventually prosecuted for antiques smuggling, before finding legitimate representation. When Dominique de Menil saw the frescoes for the first time, they were in 38 pieces, having been ripped from the chapel at Lysi as spoils of the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974.
The fragments were delivered and inspected in the warehouse of Artworld Shipping in North London. It was immediately clear that their curvature had been lost, a fact that would challenge restorers. In addition, there were no measurements, save a dubious one supplied by the smugglers. The surface paint on many of the fragments was obscured by coarse cloth facings applied with a strong rubber-type adhesive. And the imperfections in the dome of the chapel from which the murals had been torn were impossible to calculate.
The restoration process took three long years. It did not begin, in fact, until the Menil Foundation acquired them in 1984 on behalf of the Church of Cyprus. Subsequently, the Menil Foundation entered into a formal agreement with the church, allowing for restoration and a loan exhibit of 20 years. The agreement was the first ever between a US cultural institution and the Church of Cyprus. Subsequent agreements extended the partnership and the loan.
In 1992, de Menil established the nonprofit Byzantine Fresco Foundation to manage fundraising and the day-to-day administration of the chapel’s construction and maintenance. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel was designed by architect Francois de Menil and opened to the public in 1997.
Brad Epley, chief conservator at the Menil Collection, stated that since the removal of the frescoes had been anticipated, the design compensated for that. Mechanically, given that the ceiling contains a track and trolleys set on rail and suspended, the frescoes can be transported to the back of the chapel and lowered with a winch, before being taken to a side room.
In February, the frescoes will be sent to the Byzantine Art Museum of the Archbishop Makarios III Cultural Foundation in the Greek-controlled section of Nicosia, where they will join other repatriated mosaics, frescoes and Byzantine icons looted from Orthodox churches in Northern Cyprus. That is where they will be exhibited until they can be returned to their original site.
As for the Byzantine Fresco Chapel in Houston, there are currently no plans to repurpose it.
The Byzantine Chapel at the Menil Collection is at 4011 Yupon Street. For information, 713-525-9400 or www.menil.org .
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