When they go, what is left?

Volume 50, Issue 1 :: Gail Hook, Ph.D. with photographs by Paul Warchol

Rejoining separated religious artworks and architecture.

Frescos replicated

The size and shape of a 13th-century chapel in Cyprus, from which the original frescos were looted, were replicated at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel in Houston.

In July 2000, a 71-inch-by-47 inch painting depicting five vignettes of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, created by an unknown artist circa 1728, was removed from a church in San Juan Tepemazalco. The painting may have been used to convert indigenous Indians to Christianity. It was bought by the San Diego Museum of Art for $45,000 from a private collector. In 2004, the museum discovered that the painting was stolen, but not until  Mexico initiated judicial proceedings through the U.S. Justice Department in accordance with a treaty between the US and Mexico that allows Mexico to pursue the return of art from the colonial period, 1521 to 1821, through the court system.¹ Two years later the painting was returned to the Mexican Consulate in San Diego.² The museum was reimbursed by the seller. Skeptics have questioned whether the museum did due diligence in uncovering the true ownership of the painting. Whether they returned the paintings because of the treaty or out of international goodwill may never be known.

Some museums are not giving up their religious treasures so easily, evidenced by the seven-year struggle over the restitution of the Guelph Treasure, a collection of 82 12th-century German ecclesiastical art pieces, many adorned with precious stones and made of gold, silver, and copper. They were bought by four Jewish art dealers in 1929 with the intention of reselling at a profit. They were forced to sell off piece-by-piece, six of them to the Cleveland Museum of Art, and eventually, under Nazi repression, sold the 42 final pieces to the Prussian state in 1935 at a 10 percent loss. They were forced to flee Germany. In 1998, the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art was agreed upon by all German museums. These guidelines require that any object sold by Jews for less than its fair value during the Nazi period (1933-1945) can be returned. Their heirs filed a restitution claim in 2008 against the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s art collections. On October 30, 2015, the Foundation filed a motion to dismiss.³ The heirs had until the end of January, 2016, to file opposition.

The uniqueness of religious art in its setting

The Guelph artifacts were originally installed in a cathedral in Braunschweig. They are now displayed at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin. Should they be returned to the cathedral, or are they safer in the museum? Will private owners protect them? Whether or not ownership is ultimately proven to be in the hands of the heirs, these questions should be addressed.

Religious architecture and its sacred artwork and relics are intended as a unified whole. While portable pieces and embedded artwork may be considered by some as mere adornments, pieces to be rotated, borrowed, bought, or sold (or stolen), they give the building its meaning as a religious space. They represent the faith and sacrifice of believers, and serve as reminders and teaching tools. On the other hand, are they at risk in a church? Are they better protected for posterity in a museum?

And is it not only religion but also culture and national pride that are at stake when art is removed and sold or hoarded? Does a religious icon or wall painting have more relevant cultural value than a commodity like, for example, a Picasso painting? The question of where such artifacts, as well as stolen artwork and sculpture, will be the safest has to be weighed against the question of heritage and original ownership.

Contemplating the frescos

Seating allowed visitors to contemplate the frescos, which were later returned to Cyprus in 2012.

Then there is the question of the architecture. When the religious art is removed, is the building’s intent and value diminished? Or does the building stand alone? In effect, what is left? It was the summer of 1974 when churches and their art were abandoned as Cypriots fled northern Cyprus before the invading Turkish army. Subsequently, looters removed two 800-year-old frescoes from a 13th-century chapel near the town of Lysi. The frescoes were cut into 38 pieces in order to remove them from their place in the dome and apse. They made their way to Germany, and then through a Turkish dealer were sold to Dominique de Menil of Houston, Texas. De Menil did her research and traced the frescoes to Lysi. She bought the frescoes but made an amazing gesture via an agreement with the archbishop in Lysi to display the frescoes in Houston for 15 years and then return them to Cyprus. The frescoes were indeed displayed in a new $4 million chapel designed by De Menil’s son, the architect Francois De Menil, in their originally intended form of a dome and an apse. In 2012, they were returned to Cyprus, where they are displayed safely in the archbishop’s museum 40 miles from Lysi.4

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel in Houston is a boxy, modern concrete building. When first built, a large space contained an abstracted framework of a Byzantine chapel, using the original chapel in Lysi as a model for the plan and size.5 The walls and ceiling of the larger space were painted black, and the framework of the dome and apse was freestanding in the center to display the frescoes in their original format. A simple bench was positioned in front of it, vaguely suggesting the Rothko Chapel two blocks to the west. When the frescoes were returned to Cyprus the building sat empty, waiting like a bridesmaid for an appropriate partner.

One wonders what the museum curators were thinking when they failed to make replicas of the frescoes to fit the space when the originals were returned to Cyprus. Instead, a series of installations has been planned, beginning with “The Infinity Machine,” designed by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The sacred black space became a kaleidoscope of light reflected from a rotating mobile made up of more than 150 antique mirrors. Rather than a place of contemplation and worship, it was a place of flying reflections and shadows, made lively with digitally translated recordings of electromagnetic fields taken by NASA’s Voyager I and II probes as they pass Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.6 Yet perhaps the chapel’s original religious content is too powerful to ignore. The current exhibit is Francis Alÿs’ “Fabiola Project,” a display of hundreds of portraits of the fourth-century Roman ascetic, St. Fabiola.

Will the real “Nativity” please stand up?

Fresco chapel dome

View up into the dome of the fresco chapel, which features the effigy of Christ.

And finally, if the marriage of religious art and architecture is that important, should a forever-lost work of art be replaced in its original setting by a faithful copy? In 1969, the Renaissance masterpiece, “Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence,” painted by Caravaggio in 1609, was cut from its frame and stolen from an oratory in Palermo, Sicily, where it had hung for centuries. The fate of the painting that is still valued between $20 million and $40 million is not known, but many experts believe the Mafia was involved in the theft due to the testimony of a convicted mafia hitman. The crime is still considered by the FBI as one of the top ten art crimes (see related article, page 13–Ed.). On December 12, 2015, a replica of the lost painting was installed in the same spot once occupied by the original, above the altar in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo.

The Madrid- and Milan-based company, Factum Arte, created the replica using advanced scanning technology to copy recently discovered photographs taken of the original painting in the 1950s. They also studied the brush strokes and paint density of three other Caravaggio paintings in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, thought to be painted at the same time as the “Nativity.” The finished painting is the same eight-feet-nine-and-a-half-inches-by-six-feet-six-inches as the original.7

The subject of Caravaggio’s “Nativity,” juxtaposed with the Crucifixion, birth and death, adds to its significance as a religious work of art. The oratory itself is significant as a surviving example from the Baroque revival period. It is a rectangular space with tall windows for daylight and the altar occupies the end wall of the room. And it is in the La Kalsa quarter, where it stands as one of the few buildings amazingly saved from destruction during the “Sack of Palermo” in the 1950s-1980s that leveled large sections of the city in favor of modern high-rise construction. The oratory was recently restored and reopened.8

The painting depicts the birth of Christ in a stable, showing the people involved as human rather than divine. The architecture reflects the exuberance of faith and emotion surrounding the subject. The meaningfulness of both painting and architecture are amplified when married together. Surely this justifies the substitution of a replica for the original artwork.

Theft of religious art from its intended architectural setting can have multiple repercussions, but there can be multiple solutions for keeping them intact. Spiritual meaning, cultural identity, and national pride need not necessarily be sacrificed.


  1. “Painting in San Diego Museum of Art may be stolen goods from Mexico,” at bit.ly/ff-sdut
  2. “Religious art returned to Mexico,” Aug. 24, 2006 at bit.ly/ff-bbc.  Five vignettes from “California Museum gives up stolen painting” at bit.ly/ff-washpo
  3. “Why One Museum is Fiercely Fighting the Return of Nazi ‘Looted’ Artworks” (Oct. 30, 2015) at bit.ly/ff-bloomberg
  4. “800-year-old frescoes headed home to Cyprus,” at bit.ly/ff-npr
  5. bit.ly/ff-mavcor
  6. bit.ly/ff-menil
  7. “Restitution of a lost beauty: Caravaggio ‘Nativity’ replica brought to Palermo” in The Guardian, Dec. 10, 2015 at bit.ly/ff-guardian
    and “Painting stolen by the Mafia is resurrected” in The Daily Mail.com, Dec. 11, 2015 at bit.ly/ff-dailymail
    and Factum Arte article, bit.ly/ff-factumarte
    and “Stolen Caravaggio brought back to life” (Jan. 27, 2016) at bit.ly/ff-skynews
  8. “The Masterpiece that may never be seen again” (Dec. 21 2008) in

The writer is an architectural historian, historian, and adjunct professor at George Mason University and at Washington University in St. Louis.

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