Amidst a worldwide reckoning in which Western institutions have started to return remains and artifacts to their nations of origin or have rebuffed pleas to do so, Pope Francis has instructed the Vatican Museums to restore three Parthenon pieces to Greece.
The 520-foot frieze that formerly adorned the outside walls of the famous temple and depicted a procession for the goddess Athena is among the marble sculpture parts that have been kept in the Vatican Museums’ collections since the 19th century.
The Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports thanked the pope for his “generous” decision and hoped that it would put pressure on the British Museum, which is home to several elements of the Parthenon, to return the contentious Elgin marbles. Pope Francis characterized the return as a “gift” to Greek Archbishop Ieronymos II and “a tangible demonstration of his genuine wish to continue in the ecumenical path of truth,” the Associated Press said. This avoided the contentious problems of restitution and repatriation.
Following a Greek media allegation that the British Museum was in private discussions with the Greek government about returning the Elgin marbles, discourse regarding the Parthenon pieces has heated up recently.
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Many of the friezes and ornamental components of the Parthenon were destroyed during the 1687 Venetian assault of the Acropolis. More than half of what was left was taken to Britain by British ambassador Thomas Bruce, often known as Lord Elgin, at the beginning of the 19th century. This action was criticized by several, including Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who saw it as theft. (Elgin famously said that he would like having such antiques in his house.)
The British Museum or the Acropolis Museum now houses the majority of the remaining marbles, with a small number still being located elsewhere.
Although it is willing to “work” with Greece, the British Museum refuted rumors that it would return the items, stating in a statement that “We’re not going to destroy our magnificent collection as it offers a unique tale of our shared humanity.” The museum has consistently rejected requests for the marbles’ repatriation, citing rules barring deaccessioning.
There is now a great deal of disagreement among museums as to what constitutes a “great collection” and who gets to hear that “unique tale.” For certain organizations, like as the Smithsonian, the moral need to return some items trumps other considerations. The Smithsonian recently modified its collecting policy. The pope’s decision to return Greek antiquities is one of several such deeds that have occurred globally.
Benin bronzes, which the British took during a bloody invasion in 1897, have recently been returned to Nigeria by a number of institutions, including the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, thought to have been stolen from an Iraqi museum, was returned last year after having been on display at the Bible Museum.
The Vatican Museums have returned items from their collections in the past as well. Three ancient mummies were returned to Peru by the museums in October, and one Parthenon marble was loaned back to Greece for a year in 2008. Additionally, it may not be the last. Indigenous organizations in Canada begged for the repatriation of a number of items kept in the Vatican’s Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum during the pope’s visit to the nation this summer.
But for the time being, it seems that the pope’s choice is intended to mend fences with the Greek Orthodox Church. During their final encounter, Pope Francis apologized to Archbishop Ieronymos II for the Catholic Church’s part in stoking conflict with the Greek Orthodox Church when visiting Greece in December 2021. On that trip, tensions were high; a Greek Orthodox priest was seen on camera yelling at the Catholic leader, “Pope, you are a heretic,” reflecting long-standing hostility between the two religions.
The pope intends to restore a boy’s marble head, a horse’s head, and a bearded man’s head to Greece. It is not yet known where the marbles will go after they are returned to Greece, although the Acropolis Museum in Athens has a Parthenon exhibit that was created to display them. Their return has not been given a set time.
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