Bill Viola has created a powerful modern altarpiece for St Paul’s Cathedral that perfectly suits the restrained spirituality of this most English of churches.
Coming into Christopher Wren’s great building on a weekday morning when crowded buses surround this London icon, you notice how ascetic its atmosphere is. Greek mosaics and the perfect geometry of a dome that suggests the clockwork universe of Wren’s contemporary Isaac Newton make St Paul’s a place of cool, even philosophical, prayer.
Bloody martyrdoms, harrowing images of saints being crucified upside down or tortured with hot pincers – such gut-wrenching pictures are deliberately sidelined in the temple of reason that is St Paul’s. At least, they were until American visionary Viola unveiled his latest work, a permanent video installation, there on Tuesday.
It has taken more than a decade to agree on, plan and install Viola’s eerie multiscreen work Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), a quest that started when the cathedral’s overseers were struck by his exhibition The Passions at the National Gallery in 2003. This exhibition revealed the depth of his interest in traditional religious art. St Paul’s has a steady programme of commissioning modern works but there simply is no other artist today of Viola’s quality who is so committed to the idea of religious art. He is making a second work for St Paul’s, to be unveiled next year, called Mary. He says he hopes the pieces are not just art but “practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion”.
Martyrs is a study in suffering and redemption. Four people on four vertical screens undergo extreme fates: one has been buried, another hangs with her wrists and ankles bound, another sits amid flames and a fourth hangs upside down as he is drenched in cascades of water. As these images develop and transform in parallel, it becomes hard to know what is death and what is hope. Soil is whirled off the buried man in an upward band of dust, like the zip in a Barnett Newman painting, until he is born again, looking up into heavenly light. Similarly, the suspended woman endures her pain to raise her eyes to that light in a final deathly pose of triumph.