The Byzantine Fresco Chapel says goodbye to the masterpieces for which it was designed

As I approached the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, I was aware of a bittersweet somber mood in the brisk wind billowing throughout Menil Park. I felt like I was on my way to a memorial service for a lost loved one, because it was, in fact, a farewell to two beloved 13th century Lysi Frescoes that have called Houston their home for the last three decades.

I spent the first part of the Final Divine Liturgy in a temporary annex to the chapel erected specifically to accommodate the large crowd who came to pay respects and send off the two masterpieces with love and prayer. As my heels dug into the soft grass beneath me, I had to use my imagination to smell the incense through the flat screen in our tent. The peace and serenity was jolted for a moment when a large boom was heard in the distance. Likely a transformer blown from sharp winds or an unfortunate squirrel, this sound is not unfamiliar to the older neighborhoods surrounding the Menil.  This loud boom echoing off the buildings – combined with the microphone feedback and sound technical difficulties heard by all – I believed, to be God himself, making his presence known reminding us of his omnipotence.

I finally managed to get inside the lovely chapel where I could take in the ceremonies with all of my senses. The spicy smell of incense, the welcomed warmth of the large crowd, and the chants sung by His Eminence Archbishop Demitrios of America elevated my awareness that I was in the presence of beauty. I no longer felt as if I were at a funeral. I became increasingly conscious of the celebratory aura radiating between the bodies in the small space within the chapel. In the midst of the deeply spiritual experience, it was difficult not to contemplate my own mortality and fragility. Like the frescoes, our bodies are stewards of our spirits, and someday, our spirits will leave our bodies. Again, the omnipresence God was obvious when the smoke alarms chimed in.

The incense filled the vaulted room complimenting the exquisite metal and glass walls designed to frame the very works of art we were there to celebrate. Behind a black backdrop, the amazing arched glass corridors brilliantly created by Francois de Menil swirled around the frescoes. The chanters low E resonated throughout the reliquary. The living icons, for which the chapel was built, illuminated above the hundreds of people there gathered to honor the works of art and the generosity of the de Menil family. A family who believes that art is a spiritual experience.

After the Liturgy, the crowd made their way across Menil park to continue fellowship and celebration. Josef Helfenstein, Director of The Menil Collection, introduced the speakers who each reflected on the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. “For all of us who have been there, I think we have been deeply moved by this Liturgy. We are touched and deeply honored by the presence of these most distinguished guests” he said. The distinguished guests included The Ambassador of Cyprus, Pavlos Anastasiades, The Honorable George Papanikolaou, Consulate General of Greece, the Representative of the Archbishop of Cyprus, Father Demosthenous, and Houston City Council Member, Ellen Cohen. Angelic music was sung by the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral Youth Choir.

While the morning’s events were spiritually enlightening, the most moving and liberating reflection came from the architect of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, Francois de Menil. His voice delicately quivering and tears in his eyes, he passionately said goodbye to the two frescoes. He reflected on his mother’s vision, Dominique de Menil, and his families perspective of being adopters of art, cultural stewardship and “stewardship as an obligation, not an opportunity” he said.  “It has been immensely gratifying to me that this building has functioned so well as a home for the Frescoes and a sanctuary for prayer and contemplation” he remarked. Lastly, he thanked Dominique de Menil for her vision in guiding the project. Clearly he was inspired not only by the spirituality within the works of art, but also by the dream of his late mother.

The final remarks were appropriately delivered by His Eminence Archbishop of America, who delivered the Final Divine Liturgy that morning. During his remarks, or as he called them “footnotes”, we had an opportunity to see a glimpse of his humanity through his jovial wit and sense of humor. He applauded the young ladies who gracefully delivered the lovely music despite the cold wind. He also acknowledged the emotion and passion conveyed through Francois de Menil’s reflections. “It was touching to see Mr. Francois de Menil being in the condition of rather high level of emotion… for an architect is something” he teased as the crowd erupted in healing laughter.

“It is a celebration. A celebration of a wonderful presence here of these artifacts, and also a celebration of an achievement of the de Menil people collecting and restoring and making anything possible to have a decent home for these beautiful frescoes.” – His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America.


By Melissa Darragh
Published March 5, 2012
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