The Vatican Museums gave Greece three 2,500-year-old pieces of the Parthenon on Tuesday and the Greek side said the gesture should be imitated by others, a likely reference to a collection of sculptures from the ancient temple that are held by Britain.
The fragments have been in the papal collections of the Vatican Museums for more than a century and Pope Francis ordered their return last December.
The pope has donated them to Ieronymos II, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, as a gesture of ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.
Ieronymos’ representative at Tuesday’s signing ceremony at the Vatican Museums, Rev. Papamikroulis Emmanouil, called the pope’s gesture “historic”.
Emmanouil said there was “much left to do to heal the wounds and traumas suffered by this monument (the Parthenon) because of practices that belong to a distant past”.
“The hope is … that his gesture by the Holy Father will be imitated by others. His Holiness the pope of Rome has proven that this is possible and realistic,” he said.
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.
According to the Vatican Museums website, one piece being returned to Greece is the head of the horse that was pulling Athena’s chariot on the west side of the building. The others are from the head of a boy and the head of a bearded male.
In his address at the signing ceremony the governor of Vatican City, Cardinal Fernando Vergez, said the three pieces were acquired by the papacy “correctly” at the start of the 19th century. He did not elaborate.
With the donation to Greece, the Vatican Museums no longer holds any parts of the Parthenon.
The pieces are being returned as London and Athens have entered talks over the a collection known as the Parthenon Sculptures held by the British Museum.
Greece has repeatedly called for the permanent return of the sculptures, which British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the temple in the early 19th century when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Greece’s then-ruler.
The British Museum has long ruled out returning the marbles, which include about half of the 160-metre (525-foot) frieze that adorned the Parthenon, and insists they were legally acquired.
Last month, British Museum chair George Osborne said the UK was working on a new arrangement with Greece through which the Parthenon Sculptures could be seen both in London and in Athens.