Bill Viola



Not on display

Bill Viola born 1951
Video, high definition, 3 monitors, colour
Duration: 13min, 13sec
Presented by the artist and Kira Perov, with assistance from the Art Fund 2017, accessioned 2021


Mary 2016 is a silent multi-channel video installation that is one of a pair commissioned as altarpieces for permanent display in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, the other being Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) 2014 (Tate T14507). The two works address the ideas of cyclicality and renewal in nature and human life – annual, seasonal and diurnal cycles, the eternal path from birth to life to death and resurrection and its reflection in the principles of creation, destruction and regeneration eminent in nature. They present a set of devotional dichotomies: comfort and creation, suffering and sacrifice. Viola places equal emphasis on the physical configuration of the work’s monitor screen and the structures that support them as he does on their content. Displayed as altarpieces at the end of the Quire aisles, flanking the High Altar of the Cathedral and the American Memorial Chapel where US Service men and women who lost their lives in the Second World War are commemorated, the works provide a symbolic space for contemplation and devotion within the physical space of the cathedral or gallery. They are representative of themes that inform much of Viola’s work, in particular the allegorical representation of universal human experience, Eastern and Western spirituality and an appreciation of Renaissance painting.

Mary consists of three vertical video monitors, the larger centre monitor extending higher than the outer channels to form a classic triptych altarpiece configuration. It is conceived as a contemporary contribution to a long tradition of reflection on, and devotion to, the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Lasting thirteen minutes and thirteen seconds and shown on a loop, the work is structured into five parts: Mother and Child; Mary’s Journey; Scenes from Mary’s Life; Mary’s Dream; and the Pietà. It opens with a shot of a female monk breastfeeding a child against a tropical urban backdrop, which time-lapses from day to night. Beginning the work with this reference to an Eastern religion positions Mary as a universal female figure with various incarnations across religious and spiritual boundaries. As Viola has stated: ‘[Mary] is the personification of the feminine principle, related to ideas of creativity, procreation, inner strength, love, and compassion … As “container of the uncontainable”, Mary encompasses all spiritual life.’ (Bill Viola, wall panel for Mary installed at St Paul’s Cathedral, London.)

The work goes on to depict Mary as a traveller moving through and surviving in vast natural landscapes, showing compassion for others that she encounters along the way. Using multiple split screens in the two wings of the triptych, the video encompasses a wide array of environments ranging from arid deserts to snow-covered streams, depicted through all four seasons. The work’s final section sees Mary caressing Jesus’s lifeless body in her lap, representing the traditional Pietà scene from the Life of Christ. Viola has described this final scene as ‘the embodiment of eternal sorrow. This vision of death among the ruins represents an ailing and wounded humanity that Mary carries alone, providing a place of refuge and solace in the intimate sharing of grief and pain that her image as an icon offers to those who seek comfort.’ (Bill Viola, wall panel for Mary installed at St Paul’s Cathedral, London.)

Viola’s project for St. Paul’s Cathedral has been informed strongly by Ocean Without a Shore, a video installation he completed for the small church of San Gallo in Venice during the 2007 Venice Biennale. The piece reflects on the presence of the dead in our lives, as well as cycles of renewal and the incarnation of new life. This project directly engaged with the architecture and history of this small fifteenth-century church. Viola has described the Venice installation as an important stepping-stone toward developing the themes of Mary and Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water).

Further reading
Kira Perov, David A. Ross and Bill Viola, Bill Viola: A Twenty-Five-Year Survey, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1997.
Bill Viola, Bill Viola Commission: St. Paul’s Cathedral, BlainSouthern, London 2014.
John G. Hanhardt, Bill Viola, London 2015.

Stuart Comer, Andrea Lissoni and Carly Whitefield
May 2010, updated 2016 and October 2019

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