Renaissance Man: Bill Viola unveils final work for St Paul’s Cathedral

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Bill Viola is unusual as an artist: born in the same moment as his medium, the video, he is one of the art form’s pioneers, using it to explore his profound interest in the old masters of both Eastern and Western art, as well as spiritual traditions including Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism and Christian mysticism – which have all had an undeniable influence on his practice as an image-maker.
In Mary, Viola transposes biblical imagery into a modern setting, probing the artist’s career long fascination with the psyche and mystery of human experience and mortality. The work resembles a modern day digital predella – a triptych of vertically orientated plasma screens – examining the dualistic cycle of life to death through quasi-religious imagery through the evolving figure of the iconic Madonna.
Viola’s videos tend to traverse and subvert the boundaries of the medium itself, evoking all at once the painterly-like grandeur visions of the Renaissance, and the sincere finesse of the camera obscura. Through the artist’s hallmark use of slow motion and exquisite pacing, he has become a pioneer of video art– a master in his own right of the moving image.
Mary unfolds through five compositional rhythmic parts that shun conventional forms of narrative – the piece resembles more a collage of deconstructed fragments and impressions, suspended in time and space, grounded in the eternal strength and compassion of the icon, represented through multiple female figures.
“As a mother, Mary is a universal female figure present in nearly all spiritual and religious traditions, she maintains an infinite capacity to absorb and relieve the pain and suffering of all who come to her,” says Viola. “She is the personification of the feminine principle, related to ideas of creativity, procreation, inner strength, love, and compassion.”
Inaugurated in the North Quire of St Paul’s Cathedral, Reverend Canon Mark Oakley described the triptych as “a contemporary contribution to a long tradition of reflection on the life and significance of Mary.”

The installation follows Viola’s previous multiscreen work Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), a study in suffering and redemption, in which four people on four vertical screens undergo extreme fates, which was unveiled in the South Quire aisle of the cathedral in 2014.
Mary reflects the artist’s sophistication of spiritual awareness, imbued with a meditative quality and multi-faith vision to hold universal appeal, it builds on the themes of metaphysics and timelessness that have come to define Viola’s visual practice.
Mary is open to the public in the North Quire of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. For more info visit here.

Charlotte Harding

Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London. She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.