Martyrs is the first of two large-scale permanent video installations by the artist Bill Viola in St Paul’s Cathedral – the first moving image work of art to be installed in a British church on a long-term basis. The piece employs an arrangement of four colour plasma screens configured in a manner similar to a traditional altarpiece, and the practice has designed the plinth that holds the screens. The screens are installed in a space intended for quiet contemplation and meditation behind the High Altar of the Cathedral in the quire aisle, next to the American Memorial Chapel.
As the work opens, four individuals are shown in stasis. Gradually there is movement in each scene as an element of nature begins to disturb their stillness. Flames rain down, winds begin to lash, water cascades, and earth flies up. As the elements rage, each martyr’s resolve remains unchanged. In their most violent assault, the elements represent the darkest hour of the martyr’s passage through death into the light. The work has no sound and lasts for seven minutes. The industrial design team worked closely with both the artist and St Paul’s Cathedral to create a frame, which would support the work both physically and conceptually. The screens are held aloft by two slim metal legs, which are narrow in profile and taper as they rise to enhance the sense of bodies raising upwards to the sky. Discreet materials, minimal detailing and a dark, matt finish bring harmony to the juxtaposition of the modern screens and eighteenth-century architecture. The combined weight of the screens and frame exerting pressure on such a discreet footprint could crack the cathedral’s stone floor, so the legs rest on a structural plate below the flagstones and the screens are secured by an existing wall fitting, conserving the fabric of the building.
The first installation, Martyrs, will be joined in 2015 by a second piece entitled Mary, which the artist has conceived as a companion work. The installations will be gifted to Tate and on long-term loan to St Paul’s Cathedral thus strengthening the cultural links between the two institutions facing each other across the Thames and joined by the Millennium Bridge.