Pope Francis has promised to relinquish three fragments of the Parthenon Marbles housed in the Vatican Museums, the Vatican announced Friday. The move is likely to increase pressure on cultural institutions still reluctant to part with their own collections of the contested sculptures.
In the announcement, the Vatican described the move as a “donation” from Francis to His Beatitude Ieronymos II, the Orthodox Christian Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece, and said it was “a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth.”
The “donation” marks one of the highest-profile returns of the 2,500-year-old sculptures to their country of origin since the calls for their reunification gained global traction. The British Museum, which owns one of the largest collections of Parthenon Marbles, rebuked decades of appeals from Greece for their return but has recently signaled a softening of its stance.
The Parthenon Sculptures are the remnants of a group of marble relief panels and pedimental sculptures from the outer walls of the temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens. Around half of the surviving sculptural decoration was from the Acropolis in 1810 by Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin, during the Ottoman occupation of Greece. They have been the centerpiece of the British Museum’s galleries that house artifacts from Egypt and ancient Mediterranean civilizations since 1816.
Earlier this month it was revealed that George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, and Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, had met in London to discuss a possible loan of the marbles to Greece. Following the news, Mitsotakis said a “win-win solution can be found,” while the British Museum said though it was pursuing a “new Parthenon partnership with Greece,” they were “not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity.”
Other fragments of the original frieze are scattered in museums across Europe but have slowly been making their way back to Greece. In May, Italy announced that a fragment belonging to the Parthenon’s eastern frieze on loan from a Sicilian museum would stay in Athens. The artifact, depicting the foot of the goddess Artemis peeking out from a tunic, was returned as part of a four-year loan agreement between Greece and the Antonio Salinas Archaeological Museum in Palermo. In return for the fragment, the Acropolis Museum loaned Italy a 5th-century B.C.E. statue of the goddess Athena and an 8th-century B.C.E. amphora.
The Vatican’s collection includes a head of a horse, a head of a young man and a bearded older male head. The head of the young man was previously loaned to Greece for a year in 2008.
Greece’s Culture Ministry praised the pope’s decision, which had followed a request by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide. Their return aids Greece’s efforts for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures in London “with those on display in the Acropolis Museum,” the culture ministry said in a statement.
The Vatican stressed in its statement that this was a donation to the Greek Orthodox Church, not a reparation to Greece, avoiding a precedent in which other colonized countries could issue formal requests for the return of their artifacts.