Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), the powerful video commission by American artist Bill Viola at St Paul’s Cathedral is just a few weeks old but already feels like it’s always lived within these hallowed walls. One of the first moving image pieces to be permanently installed within a British cathedral, it references the fact that spirituality and art have typically inspired and interrogated each other across centuries. And a Viola video installation that addresses the multi-denominational audience that visits the Cathedral fits the bill perfectly in the 21st century.
Lasting seven minutes and without sound for greater impact, the video depicts four figures punished by the different elements – engulfed in flames, drowning in a torrent of water, buried under soil, and left to the mercy of the wind. The actors in the videos look physically strong and calm, though their discomfort and fragility is quite evident. It’s hard to come away without glimpsing the humanity that Viola aims to highlight; the universal inner grit that unites these four figures.
Viola will add a second installation titled Mary in 2015 as a contrast to Martyrs. With both works already on offer to Tate as a gift, and on long loan to St Paul’s, we’re excited about multimedia art making its way into new territory across the Millennium Bridge.
Access to Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) is available to all ticket holders at St Paul’s Cathedral from Monday-Saturday, 8.30am-4pm. But if you want to visit without paying the £16.50 full adult price, make a beeline for one of the short escorted visits that take place Monday-Friday at 11.30am and 2.15pm sharp from the main west entrance.