Bill Viola: Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) 2014 at St. Paul’s Cathedral

Bill Viola in front of Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at St Paul's Cathedral

Bill Viola in front of Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at St Paul’s Cathedral

The installation of this work by Bill Viola is a landmark in the history of art (and church).  This is the first permanent ‘moving-image artwork’ in any British church or cathedral.

St Paul’s is ordinarily exorbitantly expensive to visit (£16.50!) yet on visiting the Viola there early this afternoon, we found ourselves on an eerily undersubscribed private tour for free at 2.15pm. A very approachable guide, resplendent in an official red shoulder sash, took us in to view the quadriptych after expressing surprise that we were so few. About ten of us were there to see this historic moment. The beautiful and poetic work, so human and aching for redemption, did seem to me to be undone by its elegant production values and even by its scale. To compete with Wren, even when placed so off-centre in the cathedral, this piece needed to be more visceral and BIGGER. Anyone who saw, heard and was surrounded by ‘Five Angels for the Millennium’ at Tate Modern will know what I mean

The light pouring over the piece from the colossal window above it did not negate the beautiful lighting, acting, staging and choreography of the work – the gradual moment at the end when all for martyrs raise their heads heavenwards is brilliant. But it did make the videos feel like other visitors, no more intrinsic to the structure of the edifice we were dwarfed by than we onlookers were. The martyrs were never a threat to our equanimity – this is wondrous work, but doesn’t disturb.

Go to St Paul’s and see for yourself – you won’t have to pay if you get the timing right – see the link below


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