Vatican returns 2,500-year-used Parthenon sculpture fragments to Greece


he Vatican Museums are returning three 2,500-year-used pieces of the Parthenon to Greece – prompting calls for other countries to “imitate” the gesture.

The call from Greece is likely a reference to the collection of sculptures from the ancient Athenian temple that are currently held by museums in Britain, including the so-called Elgin Marbles controversially housed at the British Museum.

The fragments being returned to Greece acquire been in the papal collections of the Vatican Museums for more than a century, but were ordered to be returned by Pope Francis last December.

The pope has donated them to Ieronymos II, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, as a gesture of ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.

The marble head of a young man, a tiny fragment from the 2,500-year-used sculptured decoration of the Parthenon Temple on the ancient Acropolis

/ AP

Ieronymos’ representative at Tuesday’s signing ceremony at the Vatican Museums, Reverend Papamikroulis Emmanouil, called the pope’s gesture “historic”.

Rev Emmanouil said there was “much left to carryout to heal the wounds and traumas suffered by [the Parthenon] because of practices that belong to a distant past”.

“The hope is…that his gesture by the Holy Father will be imitated by others,” he said. “His Holiness the pope of Rome has proven that this is possible and realistic.”

The Parthenon, situated on the Acropolis in Athens, was completed in the fifth century BC as a temple to the goddess Athena, and its decorative friezes contain some of the greatest examples of ancient Greek sculpture.

According to the Vatican Museums website, one piece being returned to Greece is the head of the horse that was pulling Athena’s chariot on the west side of the building. The others are from the head of a boy and the head of a bearded male.

The so-called Elgin Marbles could soon be returned to Greece as the British Museum reportedly closes in on a landmark deal

/ PA Archive

In his address at the signing ceremony the governor of Vatican City, Cardinal Fernando Vergez, said the three pieces were acquired by the papacy “correctly” at the start of the 19th century. He did not elaborate.

The donation to Greece means the Vatican Museums no longer holds any parts of the Parthenon.

The pieces are being returned as London and Athens acquire entered talks over the collection known as the Parthenon Sculptures – or the “Elgin Marbles” – held by the British Museum.

Greece has repeatedly called for the permanent return of the sculptures, which British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the temple in the early 19th century when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Greece’s then-ruler.

The British Museum has long ruled out returning the marbles, which include about half of the 160-metre (525-foot) frieze that adorned the Parthenon, and insists they were legally acquired.

In February, British Museum chair George Osborne said the UK was working on a modern arrangement with Greece through which the Parthenon Sculptures could be seen both in London and in Athens.