Francois de Menil’s design embraced the complexity of the frescoes’ history by addressing their spiritual tradition, callous fragmentation, and careful restoration to the status of living icons. Through the placement of an inner chapel encased in an outer structure - a reliquary, of sorts - the design connects past with future, while creating a meditative awareness of the present. To achieve this result, Francois de Menil made a systematic study of traditional Byzantine church architecture and researched the spatial relationships that dictated the frescoes’ installation in their chapel of origin at Lysi. The placement of the paintings in the interior chapel in Houston precisely mirrors that of Lysi, the perimeters of which are outlined in translucent frosted glass walls lit from below. These walls, held together by a series of cross-shaped clips, appear to float—an ensemble that produces an ephemeral structure that has been sutured together and speaks to the broken history of these works and the temporary nature of their current home.
The illuminated, intimate space of the chapel is enveloped in black walls that descend from above without appearing to meet the floor, producing an illusion of vastness and infinity. The overall effect of light encircled by darkness and, in turn, being demarcated by light, functions in a manner similar to the way frescoes serve as icons to help focus the observer’s attention and thus provide a point of entry to the eternal.
The visitor’s approach to the chapel was also carefully considered in the design. Transitioning from the profane to the sacred, one passes a reflecting pool leading to a small lobby, and then through what Francois de Menil has described as a “decompression chamber.” Emerging into the vestibule tower, one’s gaze is drawn upward to a square of bright natural light framing the inner chapel where the frescoes are housed. As the visitor approaches this illuminated space, the frescoes slowly reveal themselves, only giving way completely when one sits down and peers upward. Exiting the chapel, the visitor catches sight of the rear grass courtyard protected by a stone wall where a single fountain feeds the reflecting pool.
The chapel’s contemplative presence on the Menil campus in Houston, and as a Cypriot site in the Western hemisphere, is one that engages interior as well as exterior dialogues. It connects visitors to a distant past, a partitioned and occupied country, and the human struggle to understand an experience of something greater than one’s self.