A marble horse head fragment from the Parthenon displayed in one of the Vatican museums will be returned to Greece. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Francis announced today, December 16, that he would return all the fragments of the Parthenon Marbles held at the Vatican Museums back to Greece. The pope called the return a “donation” to the Greek Orthodox Christian archbishop His Beatitude Ieronymos II of Athens and a gesture of his intention to “follow in the ecumenical path of truth.” The three fragments — depicting the heads of a horse, a boy, and a man — have been in the Vatican’s collection since the 19th century.

The fifth-century BCE Parthenon Marbles once adorned the Acropolis in Athens, where they depicted figures from Greek mythology, a legendary battle scene, and a procession from the “Panathenaea” annual Athenian festival. The series of sculptures, friezes, and reliefs have become the subject of hotly contested debates and calls for repatriation. In the early 1800s, the British Lord Elgin removed a large portion of the Classical Greek marbles from the Acropolis and brought them back to England, where they went on display at the British Museum in 1832. Now, the works are roughly split between Athen’s Acropolis Museum and the British Museum, though other institutions such as the Louvre also hold fragments.

The Pope’s decision comes amidst mounting pressure on the British Museum to return its portion of the objects, but the London institution has recently doubled down on its refusal to repatriate the ancient artifacts and instead suggested a loan. In 2008, the Vatican loaned one fragment, head of a man, to Greece for one year, but this time, the artifacts are going back for good.

The Vatican holds a wide swath of cultural heritage objects from around the world and has been asked to repatriate objects before. This summer, Canadian Indigenous leaders called on the Pope to return their cultural objects from the Vatican Museum, an especially important act given the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s “residential schools,” where thousands of children died. So far, the objects have not been returned.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.