Pope Francis Will Return Parthenon Sculptures to Greece

The fifth-century B.C.E. artifacts have been at the Vatican Museum for 200 years

Pope Francis and Greek Archbishop
Pope Francis with Archbishop Ieronymos II in 2021 Andreas Solaro / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Pope Francis has decided to return three 2,500-year-old pieces of the Parthenon to Greece. 

Dating to the fifth century B.C.E., the sculpture fragments depict the head of a boy, a horse head and the head of a bearded man. They were likely once part of a 520-foot frieze that adorned the Acropolis in Athens, showing a procession in honor of the goddess Athena

The three artifacts have been at the Vatican Museum for two centuries. The Vatican is framing the return as a “donation” to Archbishop Ieronymos II, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church. 

horse head
"Horse's head attributed to the West pediment" from the Vatican Museum's Parthenon Marbles Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports

In an announcement last week, the Vatican said that the move reflects the pope’s “sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth,” according to Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press (AP).

The decision comes amid a larger push for museums to repatriate cultural artifacts to the countries they came from. In recent years, many institutions (including the Smithsonian) have committed to returning such items in their collections, sometimes after years of appeals, research and discussion.

Famously, the British Museum has long resisted appeals from the Greek government to return its large collection of Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin marbles. The museum acquired the marbles after Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, took them from the Parthenon in the early 19th century.

"From the North frieze with the Panathenaic procession" from the Vatican Museum's collection of Parthenon Sculptures.
"From the North frieze with the Panathenaic procession" from the Vatican Museum's collection of Parthenon Sculptures. Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports

“Among critics, the removal of the so-called Elgin Marbles has long been described as an egregious act of imperial plunder,” as Bruce Clark wrote for Smithsonian magazine earlier this year. 

In a statement accepting the “generous decision of Pope Francis,” the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports specifically calls out the British Museum: “This decision comes in support of the diligent effort made by the Greek government … for the return of the Parthenon sculptures from the British Museum and their reunification with those exhibited in the Acropolis Museum,” says the agency, per Google Translate.

Repatriation discussions and decisions are notoriously lengthy, complicated processes. Even after an institution decides to repatriate an item, years can pass before the return actually happens. Coordinating the transport of often delicate materials takes time, as does the legal paperwork. Extensive research and analysis are needed to authenticate items before they leave a museum’s collection.

"From the Southern metopes with the centaur battle," from the Vatican Museum's Parthenon Marbles.
"From the Southern metopes with the centaur battle," from the Vatican Museum's Parthenon Marbles. Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports

This latest development comes after news earlier this month of secret talks between the British Museum and the Greek government regarding the marbles, as first reported in the Greek newspaper Ta Nea. Publicly, museum officials have said that they would consider a “partnership,” while maintaining that they will not dismantle their collection. 

In January, a small museum in Sicily returned a shoebox-size fragment from the Parthenon to Greece, per the AP’s Nicholas Paphitis. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s prime minister, said at the time that the move “opens the way … for other museums to be able to move in a similar direction.”