Religious following: Bill Viola’s ’Martyrs’ bear witness at Auckland Castle

Religious following: Bill Viola’s ’Martyrs’ bear witness at Auckland Castle

Contemporary art and religion almost always intuitively find themselves at odds. Under the mystical guidance of Bill Viola, however, the two worlds seem to collide with impossibly gripping effect. In his latest show, the American video artist returns to the north east of England, where visitors to Auckland Castle in County Durham can find faith (or denounce it) through Viola’s haunting digital altarpiece.

Four figures across a quartet of vertical screens take centre stage at St Peter’s Chapel as they battle the cardinal elements, each confined to a perpetual cycle of torment. One figure sits engulfed in furious flames, while a relentless cascade of soil consumes another; a third martyr hangs upside down lashed with water, while the last is similarly bound, as wind whips her. Here, Viola reflects on the Greek word for martyr, originally meaning ‘witness.’

The polyptych - a nod to the ornamental multi-panelled altarpieces found in churches - provides a contemporary counterpoint to what is the largest private chapel in Europe. Under its arcing ceiling, carved with the heraldic arms of the Diocese of Durham, eagles, cherubim, and mitres, Viola’s quartet of martyrs writhe hypnotically with silent resolve. 

The installation heralds a new chapter for Auckland Castle, which has been earmarked for an ambitious £60m redevelopment scheme, with plans to transform the site into a major art and heritage destination.

Viola’s showing at the chapel borrows from his ‘Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)’ video work, first unveiled last year and permanently installed at St Paul’s cathedral in London. ‘Martyrs’ serves as a prelude to a companion video work, ‘Mary’, set to join Viola’s installation at the cathedral this year. A retrospective of the artist’s work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park will be unveiled in October.

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