About the artwork


From the series Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), consisting in its entirety of four plasma screens, the element 'Fire' is displayed here. In this series, which is shown since 2014 at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, each figure is gradually overwhelmed by an attack by a natural element. The dominant theme is martyrdom, the physical suffering of the body, symbolized by the four elements.

The Greek word for martyr originally means 'witness', and Viola explains that martyrs, "through the human ability to endure pain, hardship and even death", remain faithful to their values, beliefs and principles. Like many of Viola's works, Martyrs leads to contemporary contemplation about life, death and the afterlife.

According to Bill Viola: "As the work opens, four individuals are shown in stasis, a pause from their suffering. 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."

Martyrs, made in close collaboration with Bill Viola's partner Kira Perov, was the first permanent installation of a video work in a cathedral or church in Britain. It is the first direct collaboration between St Paul's and Tate Modern accross the Millennium Bridge.