Pope returns Greece's Parthenon Sculptures in ecumenical nod

The Vatican terms the gesture a 'donation' from Francis to His Beatitude Ieronymos II, the Orthodox Christian archbishop of Athens and all Greece

By AP

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Pope Francis meets Archbishop of Athens and leader of Greece's Orthodox Church Ieronymos II at the Orthodox archbishopric in Athens, Greece. — AP file
Pope Francis meets Archbishop of Athens and leader of Greece's Orthodox Church Ieronymos II at the Orthodox archbishopric in Athens, Greece. — AP file
This photo handout on Friday by the Vatican Museums shows a 438 - 432 a.C. head of a young man from the northern frieze of the Parthenon. — AFP
This photo handout on Friday by the Vatican Museums shows a 438 - 432 a.C. head of a young man from the northern frieze of the Parthenon. — AFP
This photo handout on Friday by the Vatican Museums shows a 438 - 432 a.C. head of one of the horses of the quadriga of Athena from the western pediment of the Parthenon. — AFP
This photo handout on Friday by the Vatican Museums shows a 438 - 432 a.C. head of one of the horses of the quadriga of Athena from the western pediment of the Parthenon. — AFP
This photo handout on Friday by the Vatican Museums shows a 438 - 432 a.C. head of a bearded personage, from the metope XVI of the south side of the Parthenon wich depicts the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs. — AFP
This photo handout on Friday by the Vatican Museums shows a 438 - 432 a.C. head of a bearded personage, from the metope XVI of the south side of the Parthenon wich depicts the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs. — AFP

Published: Fri 16 Dec 2022, 8:58 PM

Pope Francis will send back to Greece the three fragments of the Parthenon Sculptures that the Vatican Museums have held for two centuries, in the latest case of a Western museum bowing to demands for restitution of artefacts to their countries of origin.

The Vatican termed the gesture a “donation” from Francis to His Beatitude Ieronymos II, the Orthodox Christian archbishop of Athens and all Greece, and said it was “a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth.”


The return, which is expected to still take some time to execute, is likely to add further pressure on the British Museums, which has refused decades of appeals from Greece to return its much larger collection of Parthenon sculptures, which has been a centrepiece of the museum since 1816.

The 5th century BC sculptures are mostly remnants of a 160-metre-long (520-foot) frieze that ran around the outer walls of the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis, dedicated to Athena, deity of wisdom. Much of the frieze and the temple's other sculptural decoration was lost in a 17th-century bombardment, and about half the remaining works were removed in the early 19th century by a British diplomat, Lord Elgin.


Aside from the British Museums, fragments have ended up in museums around Europe, and recently a small museum in Sicily decided to return its lone fragment to Greece in a loan that Greek authorities hope will be extended indefinitely.

The Vatican's three fragments include a head of a horse, a head of a boy and a bearded male head.

Greece’s Culture Ministry said it welcomed the pope’s donation, which it said followed a request by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.

The decision helps Greek efforts for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures from the British Museum “and their reunification with those on display in the Acropolis Museum,” a ministry statement said. The Acropolis Museum, for its part, also welcomed Francis' gesture.

The Vatican statement suggested the Holy See wanted to make clear that it's donation was not a bilateral decision to return the marbles from the Vatican state to Greece, but rather a religiously inspired donation from a pope to a primate. The intent may be to avoid a precedent that could affect other priceless holdings in the Vatican Museums, amid broader demands from Indigenous groups and colonised countries for Western museums to return looted artefacts, and artworks and material culture obtained under questionable circumstances during colonial times.

In the case of the Vatican Museums, Indigenous groups from Canada have made clear they want the Holy See to return artefacts sent by Catholic missionaries to the Vatican for a 1925 exhibition and are now part of its ethnographic collection.

Francis last met with Ieronymos in 2021 in Athens where he issued an appeal for greater unity between Catholics and Orthodox. At the time, Francis “shamefully” acknowledged the “mistakes” that the Catholic Church had inflicted on others over the centuries, actions which he said “were marked by a thirst for advantage and power.”

The British Museum recently pledged not to dismantle its collection, following a report that the institution’s chairman had held secret talks with Greece’s prime minister over the return of the sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles.

The Parthenon was built between 447-432BC and is considered the crowning work of classical architecture. The frieze depicted a procession in honour of Athena.


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