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Pope orders return of Parthenon sculptures to Greece

December 16, 2022

After more than 200 years at the Vatican Museum, fragments of Athens' Parthenon temple may soon return home to Greece.

One of the three fragments of Parthenon Sculptures housed by the Vatican Museum that Pope Francis decided to return to Athens
The pontiff is giving the sculptures to the Orthodox Christian archbishop of Athens.Image: Vatican Museum/REUTERS

The Roman Catholic Church is returning three pieces of the Parthenon that have been held for centuries in the Vatican Museums to Greece.

Pope Francis was giving them to Ieronymos II, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, "as a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth,'' the Vatican said.

Pope Francis met Archbishop of Athens and leader of Greece's Orthodox Church, Ieronymos II in Athens, Greece in December 2021
The Vatican described the gesture as a 'donation' from the pope to the head of the GreekOrthodox ChurchImage: George Vitsaras/Pool/AP/picture alliance

The sculptures are remnants of a 160-meter-long (520-foot) frieze that ran around the outer walls of the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis.

They include the head of a horse that was pulling Athena's chariot that has been in the Vatican collection since the 19th century.

The others are the head of a young boy, believed to be depicted taking part in a procession to commemorate the founding of Athens, and a bearded male head, the official Vatican News website said.

Broader restitution debate

The Vatican thus becomes the latest Western state to return its fragments of the Parthenon marble.

Travelers that visited the Acropolis in the 18th century often made a point of taking a piece of the Parthenon as momentos and half the remaining works were controversially removed in the early 19th century by a British diplomat, Lord Elgin.

He sold them to the British government in 1816 and, for nearly two centuries, the sculptures have been housed in the British Museum.

One of the three fragments of Parthenon Sculptures housed by the Vatican Museum
Three marble fragments are being returned includes the head of a horse that was pulling the chariot of the ancient Greek goddess Athena of wisdom, warfare and handicraftImage: Vatican Museum/REUTERS

When a museum in Sicily, Italy returned a 2,500-year-old Parthenon marble fragment to Athens in January, it sparked further calls for the British Museum to open talks about the restitution of its marble sculptures.

The British Museum has however denied any chance of the Marbles' immediate return, despite reports of secret negotiations between the insitution and Greece.

German foreign minister personally returns 20 Benin Bronzes

Museums around the world, from the United States to France, have been returning items acquired under murky circumstances, often from former colonial strongholds.

On Friday, a spokesperson for Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock's said she would personally take 20 artifacts looted by Europeans during colonial times back to Nigeria when she visits the country next week.

The symbolic gesture follows an agreement earlier this year between Berlin and Abuja that will see all 514 so-called Benin Bronzes held in German museums handed back to Nigeria.

German to return looted art to Nigeria

"With her trip Foreign Minister [Annalena] Baerbock is fulfilling this pledge," her spokesman Christofer Burger told reporters in Berlin.

In November 2021, France returned 26 artworks to Benin which were taken from the former Kingdom of Dahomey.

The Holy See wanted to make it clear on Friday that it was not a bilateral decision to return the marbles from the Vatican state to Greece, but rather a religiously inspired donation.

The statement may have been worded in a bid not to create a precedent that could affect other priceless holdings in the Vatican Museums.

lo/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)