The display of Bill Viola’s Tiny Deaths 1993 at Tate Modern coincides with the permanent installation of his new work, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), in the South Quire Aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral

Bill Viola, still image from Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) 2014

Bill Viola, still image from Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) 2014
Colour high-definition video polyptych
South Quire Aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral

© Bill Viola

Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) consists of four plasma screens, each showing a single figure who is progressively overwhelmed by the onslaught of a natural force.  The experiences of the four individuals are orchestrated together to form a coherent whole. The overriding theme is martyrdom for deep-seated beliefs, with the physical suffering of the body made dramatically evident through the cardinal elements.

Reflecting that the Greek word for martyr originally meant ‘witness’, Viola has explained that the martyrs ‘exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs and principles.’ Like much of Viola’s work, Martyrs offers a contemporary contemplation on life, death and afterlife. 

Long renowned for the spiritual capacity of his work, Viola’s videos for specifically Christian sites include The Messenger, premiered in Durham Cathedral in 1996, and a sequence of works at Bern Cathedral in 2014. Such projects have usually been temporary, and Martyrs, made in close collaboration with Kira Perov, is the first permanent installation of a video work in a cathedral or church in Britain. It will soon be accompanied in St Paul’s by the related work Mary. The donation to the national collection of these two works conceived specifically for the Cathedral constitutes the first direct collaboration to link St Pauls and Tate Modern at either end of the Millennium Bridge.

Bill Viola 
Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) 2014
High-Definition video polyptych on four plasma displays, colour, 1400 x 3380 x 100 mm
Duration: 7:15 minutes
South Quire Aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral
Executive producer: Kira Perov
Performers: Norman Scott, Sarah Steben, Darrow Igus, John Hay

Find more information on Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)