This is to be a a gesture of ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. It was not immediately clear what plans Ieronymos had for the small sculptures.
Spefically, the announcement stated that the Pope, "as a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth," has decided to make a "donation" to His Beatitude Ieronymos II, the Orthodox Christian Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, of the 3 fragments, which were kept for centuries with great care in the Pope's collections and in the Museums of Vatican and were on display to millions of visitors."
The 3 fragments of Pentelic marble, which came into the Vatican in the 19th Century, are part of the decorative sculpture of the Parthenon, the temple built on the Acropolis at Athens by Pericles (447-432 B.C.). The figurative decoration of the temple is the creative genius of the Athenian sculptor, Phidias.
The sculptures are remnants of a 160-meter-long (520-foot) frieze that ran around the outer walls of the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis, dedicated to Athena, Goddess of wisdom. Much was lost in a 17th Century bombardment, and about half the remaining works were removed in the early 19th Century by a British diplomat, Lord Elgin.
The head of a horse comes from the west front of the building, on which Athena and Poseidon were shown competing for dominion over Attica; the fragment here has been identified as the fourth horse pulling Athena's chariot. The relief with the head of a boy has been identified as one of the figures from the frieze that went round the cella of the temple: he is carrying a tray of votive cakes which were offered during the Panathenaic procession in honour of Athena. The bearded male head, however, has been attributed to one of the metopes from the southern side of the building where there was a battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs. The museums’ catalogue card for the horse head said it has been in the Vatican collections since 1823; the cards for the other 2 pieces did not have an acquisition date.
The announcement of the donation comes the same month in which news outlets reported that senior officials from Greece, including its prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, have been in secret “preliminary” talks with the British Museum about its huge collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon.
Mitsotakis has made the repatriation of the collection a priority, The Guardian newspaper reported December 3rd, 2022.
“We have seen progress,” he said, and a “win-win solution” was possible.
The British Museum maintains it is the rightful and legal owner of the marbles, which it acquired from Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, who claimed he had permission to remove the sculptures in the early 1800s after approval from the government of the Ottoman Empire, which was ruling Greece at the time.
The British Museum website said that “all surviving examples of decoration from the Parthenon are found in museums; there are fragments in Paris, the Vatican, Copenhagen, Munich, Vienna, Palermo and Würzburg. Of the 50% of the original sculptures that survived, about half are in the British Museum and half in Athens.”
The Acropolis Museum in Athens has sought to re-create the complete 525-foot frieze with plaster casts of all the sculptures in foreign collections together with original pieces that were left behind or returned.
The Vatican had loaned the fragment of the boy’s head in late 2008 for one year and it was displayed in the Acropolis Museum following a request for its return by the late Greek Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos at a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.
“All the artifacts in the museum belong to the Pope, only he can make a decision” about them," said Giandomenico Spinola, head of the Vatican Museums’ archaeological collections, at the time of the loan.
The Vatican thus becomes the latest Western state to return its fragments of the Parthenon marbles, leaving the British Museum among the holdouts.
But the Vatican statement suggested the Holy See wanted to make clear that it was not a bilateral decision to return the marbles from the Vatican state to Greece, but rather a religiously inspired donation. The statement may have been worded in order not to create a precedent that could affect other priceless holdings in the Vatican Museums.