For native Houstonians, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel is known as one of the hidden gems in Houston. The frescoes are a small part of the Menil collection, and they are the largest intact frescoes in the Western Hemisphere dating from the Byzantine period. It is with a heavy heart and a sense of hope that we bid farewell to the collection of frescoes that have been hosted in our city for the last fifteen years. The frescoes will remain in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel until March 4, 2012 and will subsequently be returned to the Orthodox Church of Cyprus.
The frescoes originated in the village of Lysi, where they were housed in a small and intimately scaled prayer chapel. The frescoes were stolen, dismantled and marketed for sale. Through the work of Dominique de Menil, the Menil Foundation was able to rescue the frescoes and painstakingly restore them to their original beauty – a process that reconnected the 38 fragments over a period of three years. Part of the Menil’s mission is “the belief that art and spirituality are powerful forces in contemporary society and central to a shared human experience” . To promote this belief, a unique sacred space was designed by Francois de Menil specifically to house the frescoes. The consecrated chapel allows the frescoes to be central to the idea of art and spirituality as integral parts of our lives.
The chapel was designed as a new contextual environment for the frescoes, instead of a mere replica of their prior home. Composed as a double shell structure, the outer layer consists of a weather-proof concrete shell while the interior layer is a delicate series of planar glass elements suspended in space. The glass planes delineate the shape of the chapel, which is arranged to replicate the positioning of the original chapel. While the layout of the space and the location of each fresco is directly influenced by the chapel in Lysi, the contemporary material choices and separation of planes creates a completely new way of experiencing and understanding the art and its spiritual significance. Hinting to the fractured history of both the frescoes and their country of origin, the fragmented interior shell creates a temporary and delicate receptacle for the sacred relics.
As visitors approach the building, they are transitioned from the secular world into spiritual reflection as they walk by a shallow pool and enter the vestibule where their gaze is drawn towards the glass planes suspended under a black ceiling. The edges of the inner and outer shells are demarcated with bright natural light, giving an ethereal and ephemeral quality to the space. The weight of the frescoes’ significance is felt by the pressing dark ceiling, and the beauty of their restoration is given life through the play of light on the frosted glass which surrounds them. The masterful blend of contemporary and historic styles along with a perfect balance of scale, proportion and hierarchy allow the visitor to experience each element in sequence with none over powering the next. This balanced approach is typical of Byzantine architecture, wherein a “triad of architecture, painting, and observer” is created .
To commemorate the frescoes and their passage back to the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, the Menil will host two public events, both of which are free. A procession with musical tribute will be held February 12 at 5:30pm and a discussion on sacred art’s relation to the Menil will be held February 19 at 7:00pm. March 4, 2012 will be the final day to view the frescoes in their Houston home.
For a look at other architecturally significant chapels, try this post on chapels from around the world.
All images used with permission from the Menil.
,  – Quotes from the Byzantine Fresco Chapel website.