The Vatican has returned three fragments of the Parthenon sculptures kept by the Vatican for centuries to Greece.
The decision to return the 2,500-year-old marbles was announced by Pope Francis last year, who described the decision as a gesture of friendship.
One of the fragments depicts the head of a boy, another the head of a horse, and the third the head of a bearded man.
They were unveiled at a ceremony at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, an exhibition space built purposely to house the Parthenon Marbles.
Greek officials highlighted that the return of the fragments was a step to the further return of Parthenon sculptures, primarily referring to the much bigger collection held in the British Museum that Greece has been trying to recover for decades.
The two countries have been at odds over sculptures removed from the fifth-century BC temple by Lord Elgin, Britain’s then-ambassador to the Ottoman Empire who then sold them to the British government.
The marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, were displayed in the British Museum where they remain. Their return to Greece is one the most high-profile restitution cases in the art world.
Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni, described the decision as heroic adding that “Initiatives like these show the road that we could follow…. in order for the unity of the Parthenon to be restored.”
In an initial bid to keep out of controversy, the Vatican has been careful to term the return a “donation” to the Orthodox archbishop of Athens and all Greece, Ieronymos II, and not a state-to-state- transfer.
The offer was immediately accepted by Ieronymos II who said the fragments would go to the Acropolis Museum. At the ceremony in Athens, he described Pope Francis’s gesture as one “of historical significance”. He also expressed a wish “that others will imitate it.”
The British Museum is prevented by law from permanently returning the artworks to Greece but reports over the last year have suggested that progress has been made in finding a solution.
In January, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that an agreement had been drawn up between the museum’s chairman, former chancellor George Osborne, to allow them to be returned as part of an exchange deal.
Growing support in public opinion in Britain has also been hailed as an optimistic sign in Greece.
Addressing the repatriation ceremony as head of the Vatican’s delegation, Bishop Brian Farrell said the gesture “has particular significance in affirming ever more strongly the friendship and spiritual closeness between our Churches.”
A fragment of the Parthenon temple was returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily, in 2022.