Pope Francis has decided to return to Greece three 2,500-year-old pieces of the Parthenon that have been in the papal collections of the Vatican Museums for two centuries.
The Vatican said in a brief statement that the pope was giving them to Archbishop Ieronymos II, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church and Greece’s spiritual leader, as a “donation” and “a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth”.
The Parthenon, which is on the Acropolis in Athens, was completed in the fifth century BC as a temple to the goddess Athena, and its decorative friezes contain some of the greatest examples of ancient Greek sculpture.
The Vatican’s three fragments include a head of a horse, a head of a boy and a bearded male head, which have been held by the Vatican since the 19th century. The head of the boy had been loaned to Greece for a year in 2008.
The decision to “donate” the sculptures to the Greek Orthodox Church and not return them directly to the Greek state is widely seen as a way for the Vatican to avoiding setting a precedent that could affect other treasures in its museums, as many First Nations groups and colonised countries around the world demand that western museums return artifacts and artworks looted during colonisation.
The Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports expressed gratitude for the pope’s “generous” decision as well as hope the move would put pressure on the British Museum. The Acropolis Museum also welcomed the decision. It is not yet clear what plans Ieronymos has for the small sculptures.
The Vatican’s decision, which is expected to still take some time to execute, is likely to add further pressure on the British Museum, which has refused to return its larger collection of Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, which has been a centrepiece of the museum since 1816.
For decades, Greece has appealed to Britain to permanently return the 2,500-year-old sculptures, which British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon temple in the early 19th century while ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Greece’s then-ruler.
The British Museum has repeatedly ruled out returning the marbles, which include about half of the 160-metre frieze that adorned the Parthenon, and insists they were legally acquired.
Earlier this month it was revealed that museum trustees had held secret talks with Greece’s prime minister about returning the marbles. The Greek government said no decision was imminent, while the British Museum said though it wanted a “new Parthenon partnership with Greece”, “we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity”.
The United Nations’ cultural agency Unesco has urged Greece and Britain to reach a settlement.
Associated Press contributed to this report