The Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, 1997-2012.
The frescoes were looted from a church in Lysi, North Cyprus in the 1980s. The looters approached Texas oil heiress Dominique de Menil who then consulted the church and Republic of Cyprus. de Menil agreed to ‘ransom’ and restore the frescoes, which were cut up into pieces. Legally she ensured that the frescoes belonged to Cyprus, and in return the Republic of Cyprus agreed to a 25-year loan at the Menil Collection. de Menil’s son designed and built the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, which was officially consecrated by the Bishop of Nicosia. The Menil Collection returned the frescoes to Cyprus at the completion of the loan, in 2012.
This is/was my favorite museum space on earth.
But why must the building be so ugly on the outside. It is just so depressing. Beyond brutalist.
The external design is intended to communicate Byzantine ideas about monastic seclusion, solitude, asceticism, restraint, and contemplation, using a vocabulary that doesn’t try to “reproduce” a Byzantine space. de Menil imagined the exterior as a contemporary reliquary box, and it’s very successful and elegant in that regard. It’s an important thing to visually articulate that these frescoes are not in their original home, they are estranged and a reproduction would fall short and not do justice to the way they entered the country.
The courtyard is full of lush grass, running water, and variegated light. The interior has a “decompression” room to allow your eyes to adjust to the dimness inside. The shape of the building allows for natural light to filter in and shift the appearance of the frescoes based on time of day. It’s not ugly at all, it’s very carefully thought out and constructed with a high degree of sensitivity. There have been some great publications on the chapel itself, and I think it is a beautiful statement.