October 20, 2011

The Byzantine Empire Comes To Life For Presbyterian School 7th Graders

October 18, 2011
Your Houston News

When you’re neighbors with vestiges of ancient cultures, a walk around the block can be a real history lesson.

Such was the case recently for seventh graders at Presbyterian School, located in the Museum District.

Presbyterian School counts among its neighbors the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, the Rothko Chapel and the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral, many of which bring to life elements of the Byzantine Empire’s Greek culture. Utilizing the close proximity of these neighboring institutions, history teacher Kathy Webb took the entire seventh grade (students and faculty) on a walking tour to see some Byzantine life in the 21st century.

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel and the Rothko Chapel are a part of the Houston Menil Collection near the University of St. Thomas. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel displays the only intact Byzantine frescoes of this size and importance in the entire western hemisphere. Students had the opportunity to view the work of Francois de Menil, the architect of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, who executed his mother's vision for a "chapel museum" as a repository for frescoes recovered from Cyprus in the 1980s. Presbyterian School students had the good fortune to visit the frescoes this fall since they will be permanently returned to Cyprus in 2012.

Student Connor Watson said, “There were many paintings and idols in the Byzantine Chapel. We even studied a lot about one of the idols, and it ended up being there. That was very cool.”

Following the visit to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, students walked to the Rothko Chapel, which is a non-denominational chapel founded by Francois de Menil’s parents, John and Dominique de Menil. The interior serves not only as a chapel, but also as a major work of modern art. Students learned that the Rothko Chapel was a chapel with many paintings which could be interpreted as anything you can imagine from it. The Rothko Chapel also has no lights and only uses the light from the sun. Rothko would consider this “Natural Light” which he used in everything he made or painted.

Topping off the walking tour was a visit to the Original Greek Festival, sponsored by the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Students were able to feast on Greek gyros and dolmades. What do Presbyterian School students think about Greek food? As one student shared: “This festival had amazing food, maybe even the best I’ve ever had. The food was so good that I would consider it the best part about the trip. I thought the field trip was amazing.” After tasting Greek fare, students took in much of the Byzantine culture through the festival displays of religious artifacts/icons, Greek music and folk dancing. Students also toured the Cathedral sanctuary to see up close the iconostasis, a wall of religious paintings, which divides the nave and the altar and holds many of the icons from the original 1917 church.