Greece welcomes back ancient art amid pressure on British Museum

The restitution of Parthenon artefacts from the Vatican increases pressure on the British Museum to react to a campaign launched by Athens 40 years ago.

Bishop Brian Farrell
Bishop Brian Farrell, a Vatican secretary for promoting Christian unity, headed the visiting delegation to Athens [Petros Giannakouris/AP]

Greece has welcomed the Vatican’s return of ancient artefacts from the Acropolis, furthering a campaign to press the British Museum to hand back a collection of sculptures taken from the ancient site in Athens more than 200 years ago.

Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni on Friday led a ceremony for the repatriation of three sculpture fragments that had been kept at the Vatican Museums.

The artefacts, representing a horse and two male heads, will be added to the collection at the Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009 at the foot of the ancient site in the centre of the Greek capital Athens.

Bishop Brian Farrell, a Vatican secretary for promoting Christian unity, headed the visiting delegation and said the return of the three fragments had been discussed during a visit to Athens by Pope Francis in 2021.

“The gifting of the fragments of the Parthenon, which had been held in the Vatican Museums for more than two centuries, shows itself as cultural and social gesture of friendship and solidarity with the people of Greece,” Farrell said.

“We assure you of our intimate joy at the realisation of your legitimate wish to have the … fragments at home in their place of origin,” he added.

The gesture added pressure on the British Museum to reach a settlement with Greece following a campaign launched by Athens 40 years ago.

“Initiatives like these show the way, how the pieces of the Parthenon can be reunited, healing the wounds caused by barbaric hands so many years ago,” Mendoni said.

“This takes us to the just and moral demand of the entire Greek people, and of this government and its prime minister, for the final return of all the sculptures of the Parthenon.”

Mendoni said Greece would be willing to lend the British Museum ancient Greek artefacts for exhibition to “fill the gap” if the marbles were returned.

“Greece cannot recognise possession and ownership by the British Museum because it considers the sculptures to be there as a product of theft,” she said.

The leader of Greece’s Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos II, said the “act by Pope Francis is of historical significance and has a positive impact on all levels. We hope it sets an example for others”.

Greek Culture Ministry officials played down remarks made last month by British Museum Chair George Osborne who said the United Kingdom was working with Greece on an arrangement to display the Parthenon marbles in both London and Athens.

Last year, another marble sculptural fragment from the Parthenon temple – depicting a foot of the ancient Greek goddess Artemis – was returned to Athens from a museum in Palermo, Sicily.

Greece argues that the Parthenon sculptures are at the core of its ancient heritage, while supporters of the British Museum maintain that their return could undermine museum collections and cultural diversity globally.

Carved in the 5th century BC, the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken in the early 19th century by British diplomat Lord Elgin before Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies