With a little help from chirping smoke detectors, final Byzantine Fresco Chapel service celebrates doing the right thing

Mar. 3, 2012Culture Map

Not long after 8 a.m., it was as clear that something special was taking place on the grounds of the Menil Collection on this chilly Saturday. While the campus was undisturbed and serene, scores of cars parked alongside neighboring streets told a different story.

Inside the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, the aura mirrored that stillness and somber tenor as a quiet and contemplative congregation assembled to bid bon voyage to the Cyprean religious icons that have crowned the sacred space since its opening in 1997. The final Matins and Divine Liturgy was officiated by Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, and under the spiritual jurisdiction of Metropolitan Isaiah from the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Denver.

“We pray that this change will leave behind a beautiful experience,” Archbishop Demetrios said. “No matter what happens, this chapel will always have a sense of holiness forever.”

It was the same sacrament the frescoes had heard for 700 years, interrupted only when they were stolen from their Cypriot chapel in 1980, cut into 34 pieces, then rescued from the black market by Dominique de Menil in 1984. Sunday will be the last day the frescoes will be open to the public before preparing to journey back home to Cyprus.

“Not only did Dominique de Menil restore them, she exhibited them in a sensitive way that expresses understanding and respects the meaning of the frescoes, ” Pavlos Anastasiades, ambassador of Cyprus, said. He was accompanied by his wife Maria.

The frescoes could have been housed in a museum, he pointed out. That a special building was erected to honor their spirit shows de Menil’s love for artifacts that are holy, items that are beautiful and things of historical importance.

Musky and sweet incense, flickering candles, harmonically-exotic Greek chants under long drones engulfed the tighly packed small house of worship. Except no one told the technologically sensitive smoke detectors that the fragrant fumes were no cause for alarm. The persistent chirps didn’t get in the way of the service, however. They loosened the ambiance and reminded parishioners that returning the frescoes wasn’t reason to mourn.

Rather, it was an opportunity to celebrate the de Menils and the Menil Foundation’s desire to do the right thing, even if their primary wish was to extend the loan agreement with Cyprus’ Archbishop Chrysostomos II.

Along with chirping smoke detectors, flash photography and video cameras filtered on to the scene. And the clergy wasn’t shy about documenting the proceedings either. When in Rome? In that spirit, even this reporter of Jewish faith partook in the Holy Eucharist rite and accepted communion, when was told it was appropriate to do so.

A brunch buffet catered by Niko Niko’s on the Menil’s grounds followed with remarks by Menil Collection’s director Josef Helfenstein, City Council member Ellen Cohen and Francois de Menil, who had designed the chapel. With the skies smiling bright, a performance with the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral Youth Choir was a delightful addition.

Present were Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, Susan de Menil, Cynthia Kostas, Greek consul George Papanikolaou and his wife Afsana Danishani, Father Demetrios Tagaropulos with his wife Presvytera Joana, Toby Kamps and Mary Poulos.