Martyrs and Mary by Bill Viola
'Martyrs', Bill Viola, 2014 (close up).
Martyrs and Mary by Bill Viola
These two affecting large-scale video installations were created by internationally acclaimed artist Bill Viola.
Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) and Mary are two pieces of video art on long-term loan to the Cathedral from the Tate Modern.
Both focus on different topics – the first, martyrdom and suffering, and the second motherhood. These two works offer an opportunity to our visitors to stop and reflect on these important themes and link our building with the work and impact of one of London’s most vital art galleries.
Martyrs opened in May 2014, and was created by Bill Viola and his collaborator and partner Kira Perov. The soundless work shows four individuals across four colour vertical plasma screens being martyred by the classical elements – earth, air, fire and water. As the seven-minute piece unfolds, each martyr begins undisturbed, until the elements lash down with increasing ferocity. Rather than fighting their fate, they remain stoic through their suffering. Viola and Perov required performers with considerable physical strength, recruiting two aerialists for the air and water segments, both of whom had worked with Cirque Du Soleil.
In an analysis of the piece, The Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, a former Canon of the Cathedral, has explained how the piece allows visitors to the Cathedral to “encounter universal spiritual questions of life and death”. He says:
“Today martyrdom is often spoken of in terms of what people kill themselves for and others with them. It is more authentically a word that focuses on what a human being might be willing to die for – faith, conscience, justice, love of others. This work deepens our perceptions by slowing them down. We see the courage and resilience of the human in the face of all that would destroy what is true and good. We each have been given the gift of being. The gift we have to offer in return is who we become and how our lives, and deaths, might transform the world.”
The piece can be viewed at the end of the south Quire aisle.
'Mary', Bill Viola, 2016.
Mary followed after Martyrs in October 2016. A much less disquieting work than its counterpart, it is also comprised of vertical video screens, showing different depictions of the life of the Mother of Christ.
In the first segment, we see a Black woman nursing a child, in front of a bustling backdrop of a city through time. In the second, we see another woman wandering through a desert landscape, eventually resting by a campfire. This resonates with the 12th chapter of the book of Revelation, wherein the 6th verse it says: ‘The woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for many days’.
The two side panels then turn into smaller scenes seeming to represent passages from the life of Mary and Jesus. In one, a woman walks towards a single house, to be greeted affectionately by another woman, who you can easily imagine saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”, as stated by Elizabeth to her cousin Mary in Luke 1 verse 42. At the end of the piece, all the screens change to depict a classical Pietà – the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ – which is clearly an interpretation of Michelangelo’s sculpture from the Vatican Basilica of St Peters in Rome.
Viola says that the two works symbolise ‘some of the profound mysteries of human existence. One is concerned with birth and the other death; one with comfort and creation, the other with suffering and sacrifice. If I am successful, the final pieces will function both as aesthetic objects of contemporary art and as practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion.’
Mary is situated in opposition to its sister piece, at the bottom of the north Quire aisle. Find the locations of these pieces, alongside other Cathedral art, on our interactive map.