"Martyrs" at St. Paul's Cathedral London by Bill Viola

Martyrs are finally getting a little press with new art at London’s storied St Paul’s Cathedral – just not explicitly Christian martyrs, nor are they “honored” exactly … but they do use the word “Martyrs” in the title, and that’s a start!

American media artist Bill Viola just installed a permanent video quadriptych on the theme of “martyrdom” for the magnificent (1708) structure, which is the locus of all things officially Christian in Britain.

“Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)” is a grouping of digital screens arranged similarly to historical altarpieces such as the Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, his “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” which may have been Viola’s inspiration.

In a continuously looping video of four persons tormented relentlessly by the elements, Viola’s “martyrs” begin alive and appear to survive the digital furies. Perhaps it is a sign of eternal life? Unlike traditional mediums, however, this life depends on a supply of electricity.

Fire, earth, air and water assault the “martyrs” while they passively accept dousing, searing, buffeting and binding in a resolved and stoic manner. With no visual backgrounds nor sound, the entire piece is extremely simplified, leaving it rather eerie and unnerving, probably a deliberate device. Enormously minimalized in imagery and detail compared to a traditional altarpiece, it appeals to critics, but appears to many who see this as a totally new departure for religious art.

Their mortified faces are also odd, considering Viola seemed obsessed with human emotion almost singularly for decades with videos of agonizingly slow screams and other forms of teeth gnashing.

Viola’s work may appeal to the church because he restaged videos of Renaissance and Medieval paintings to express the passions. Most of these were religious, such as “Catherine’s Room,” which echoes Andrea di Bartolo’s “St. Catherine of Siena Praying.”

Although Viola is considered a video art pioneer, his work stood out more for attitude than techniques or technology, which weren’t particularly unusual. He didn’t camp out on shock, irony, pure aesthetics or most political causes.

His offering for a 2000 National Gallery show digitized and animated Hieronymus Bosch’s “Christ Mocked” and received more comment than others in the show. Five dramatically posed figures play the cruel and sneering onlookers in parallel to Bosch’s painting in “Quintet of the Astonished.”

Unlike the original painting, Viola’s nasty crowd is tediously average in appearance, white and well-groomed, which makes it more unsettling. Bosch’s crude, Neanderthalic faces and hints at anti-Semitism amidst fallen mankind are completely erased here.

"Quintet of the Astonished" still from video, Bill Viola

From a 1999 interview, Viola describes how “Christ Mocked” struck him as inspiring for the “individual who can stand securely in whatever turbulent situation he may find himself.” The painting also elicited feelings of “self-contaiment … self-knowledge” and other mystical stock phraseology for him. This echoes Viola’s Zen-Buddhist background, but I could safely bet Westminster Abbey that those particular thoughts never came within spitting distance of Hieronymus Bosch.

Still the inability to understand Bosch’s Judeo-Christian worldview hasn’t stopped Viola and other contemporary artists from admiring the masters and finding much to contemplate or share with us now. They understand that Renaissance and Medieval painters found it easy to meld aesthetics and religious devotion in paintings because their world and market demanded it.

"Christ Mocked" by Hieronymus Bosch

Whiting out gory images of blood and disembowlings may well be a matter of decorum rather than political correctness. Church of England types are hardly rowdy, loud yokels and have a tradition of commissioning elegant and important religious art over the centuries.

Consider that video scenes of actual martyrdom could well qualify for X-rated “slasher” or “snuff film” categories. Both “snuff films” and dead Christians have a real appeal to a small proportion of readers of The Guardian, though, judging by some awful comments they left.

Viola explains that the through “their most violent assault, the elements represent the darkest hour of the martyr’s passage through death into the light.”

It’s fortunate he left an artist’s statement at St.Paul’s, or connection to attacks on the church would be lost or at least one of many possible interpretations (such as climate change, intergalactic attacks or new advances in alchemy).

Unfortunately the video is barren of any Christian content, not one of the unfortunates so savaged wears even a miniscule cross. Perhaps I’m being petty, and the lack of any specific faith is an appeal against the martyrdom, universally.

Viola expounds on the martyrs’ lives as exemplifying the “human capacity to bear pain, hardship and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs and principles.”

Still no hint of the current genocide against Christians, which would at least leave an implied distinction between the highly paid and self-executed Islamic versions of “martyrdom.”

Only because this appears in a church of great importance to the state does it make such waves. Dignitaries visit, queens marry and kings bury in the space holding Viola’s highly visible work. St. Paul’s escaped zeppelin attacks and bomb plots by enraged suffragettes a century ago and is still is at the center of British politics and culture.

The nearby Tate Modern is showing Viola’s “Tiny Deaths” (1993) to spotlight the relationship between St Paul’s and Tate Modern, hoping to increase audiences for both. Certainly with such a close link between the state and church art can be an explosive issue.

Surely the clerics weren’t’ surprised or disappointed by Viola’s lack of specific or theologically orthodox content, as Viola is a self-described Buddhist, although comfortably accepting of other religions including Christianity. And Christian churches have reciprocated, welcoming his work across Europe and America.

St. Paul’s isn’t averse to screamingly secular types exhibiting within their hallowed walls. The Christian-phobic Yoko Ono unsurprisingly lugged classical Shintoism straight into the hallowed space with few complaints or notices. Her unimaginative 2006 installation “Morning Beams” rehashed New Age concepts via ropes, stones and paeans to nature.

Ono also left a “Wish Tree” or Buddhist “O-mikuji” tree outside the Cathedral. I’ve seen them in Japan, waving hundreds of paper blessings like a giant fortune-cookie shrub near shrines. You may also receive a “future curse” or a promise to find lost articles or help with investments. Perhaps this was an innovative new offering ploy, as recipients in Japan receive their “blessings” via a small contribution.

The Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, chancellor of the Cathedral, seems happy with Viola’s installation that resists “cheap paraphrase” and allows us to “face ourselves alone in our fragility and potential.”

This is all well and good, but the Reverend Canon eventually comes around to saying something much more relevant: “Today martyrdom is often spoken of in terms of what people kill themselves for and others with them. It is more authentically a word that focuses on what a human being might be willing to die for – faith, conscience, justice, love of others.”

Critics are positive for the most part, with the Guardian raving that it’s an “altar piece to die for” and Jonathan Jones predicting it as a universal work that will change the future of religious art. Others assert Viola’s videos are a “supreme affirmation of technological brilliance,” but they don’t seem particularly unusual to me in technique nor content. Like abstract paintings, viewers will find a reflection of themselves or their own theology with little guidance from the pruned image itself.

Simon Carter, head of collections at St. Paul’s, reminds us that “all art is contemporary” at its creation. He notes the Cathedral participated in whatever “contemporary” meant at the moment from 18th century mural paintings to this point. Carter also assumes that video will eventually be perfectly acceptable as a legitimate mode of artistic expression for churches.

Reverend Mark Oakley offers that St. Paul’s should use all available media because “people might be confused as to what the church” and our faith is. Absolutely, but does “Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)” help to enlighten them about any of that? After all, Viola is a Buddhist, expressing vaguely generic spirituality and hoping to attract people from diverse backgrounds. If not for the name and statements, viewers wouldn’t have a clue why.

“Martyrs” only clear connection to Christianity is its current location, but Rev. Oakley perceives much more potential for the effects of the videos on viewers: “We see the courage and resilience of the human in the face of all that would destroy what is true and good.”

Sources: St. Paul’s Cathedral / The Guardian / Designboom / Fawnreview.com / The Independent

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