The Pope will deliver marble fragments from the Parthenon in the Vatican to the Greek Orthodox Church
In a statement issued on Friday, the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports expressed his gratitude for the pope’s “generous” decision and hopes the move will put pressure on the British Museum, which has dozens of Parthenon fragments, to return the controversial Elgin marbles. Avoiding the burning issues of restitution and repatriation, Pope Francis framed the return as a “donation” to Greek Archbishop Ieronymos II and “a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow the ecumenical path of truth,” Associated Press reported.
Conversation has swirled around the Parthenon fragments in recent weeks after a Greek newspaper report said that The British Museum was in secret talks with the Greek government. on the return of the Elgin marbles.
During the Venetian siege of the Acropolis in 1687, many of the Parthenon’s friezes and decorative elements were destroyed. In the early 19th century, British diplomat Thomas Bruce, better known as Lord Elgin, sent more than half of what was left to Britain, a move critics including Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis have called theft. (Elgin infamously wrote that such artifacts would look good in your home).
Today, most of the surviving marbles are in the British Museum or the Acropolis Museum, while a handful remain elsewhere.
The British Museum denied claims that it would return the artifacts. saying in a sentence that while he is open to “association” with Greece, “we are not going to dismantle our great collection, as it tells a unique story of our common humanity.” For decades, the museum has rebuked efforts to get it to return the marbles, citing anti-repossession policies.
What makes a collection “great” and who gets to hear that “unique story” are topics of fierce debate among museums these days. For some institutions, such as the Smithsonian, which recently updated their collection policy — the moral imperative to return some items outweighs other concerns. The Pope’s decision to return the Greek artifacts is one of many similar acts around the world.
Recently, several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the smithsonianreturned to Nigeria artifacts known as the Benin bronzes, which were stolen by the British in a deadly 1897 invasion. Last year, the Gilgamesh Dream Tabletwhich was once on view at the Museum of the Bible and is believed to have been looted from an Iraqi museum, has been returned.
This is not the first time that the Vatican Museums have returned objects from their collections. In October, the museums gave three ancient mummies back to Peru, and in 2008, they Returned a Parthenon marble to Greece on a year’s loan. It also might not be the last. When the Pope visited Canada this summer, the country’s indigenous groups requested the return of several objects in the Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum of the Vatican.
For now, however, the Pope’s decision appears to be focused on repairing relations with the Greek Orthodox Church. Pope Francis last met Archbishop Ieronymos II on a visit to Greece in December 2021, during which he apologized for the role of the Catholic Church in fomenting division with the Greek Orthodox Church. Tensions were high on that trip; a Greek Orthodox priest caught on video screaming “Pope, you are a heretic”, to the Catholic leader, reflecting the historical distrust between the churches.
The artifacts the Pope plans to return to Greece include a marble head of a child, a horse’s head and a bearded man’s head. The Acropolis Museum in Athens has a Parthenon gallery that was built to house the marbles, but it’s not yet clear where they will go once they’re in. back in Greece. A date for his return has not been announced.