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Films depicting martyrdom on show in St Peter's Chapel at Auckland Castle

A new work by American artist Bill Viola sparks memories of The Messenger which was shown in Durham Cathedral

Few who saw it will forget The Messenger, an extraordinary and moving piece of work by American artist Bill Viola that premiered in Durham Cathedral in 1996.

Shown on a huge screen, it showed a naked man – actually an American deep diver, Chad Walker, who could stay underwater for four minutes – very slowly materialising out of the watery depths before disappearing.

In the cathedral setting it turned the mind to religious contemplation. Via the latest technology, it seemed the artist was giving us an angel.

Mind, a Tory MP complained about the use of lottery money – “If I saw a naked man flapping around in a tank in my church, I’d think I’d flipped” – and Durham Police, invited in to view the work “as a precaution”, while deciding it didn’t contravene the Obscene Publications Act, did recommend that a screen be erected.

Now there is another Bill Viola work in a North East religious building, St Peter’s Chapel at Auckland Castle where a Communion service is still held once a month.

But the current Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Paul Butler, approved the installation of Earth Martyr, Air Martyr, Fire Martyr and Water Martyr in the chapel which was consecrated 350 years ago by his predecessor, Bishop John Cosin.

Another edition of this same work, which was made last year, is displayed slightly differently in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Here there are four screens displayed in a row between the altar and the carved 18th Century reredos or backscreen.

Shown on each screen is a film suggesting a form of torture. Viola’s subjects – three men and a woman, two of whom perform with Cirque du Soleil – appear to have submitted to at least a small degree of discomfort while being filmed.

© Mark Pinder The exhibition 'Earth, Martyr, Air, Martyr, Fire Martyr, and Water Martyr Bill Viola 2014'
- Photo © Mark Pinder www.markpinderphotography.co.uk
The exhibition 'Earth, Martyr, Air, Martyr, Fire Martyr, and Water Martyr Bill Viola 2014' - Photo © Mark Pinder www.markpinderphotography.co.uk

But anyone upset by the films, in which no-one actually got hurt, might care to cast an eye over some of the older imagery in the chapel.

Dedicated to Saint Peter, who reputedly was crucified upside down, the martyrdom theme is picked up in the carvings and stained glass.

Dr Chris Ferguson, curatorial director at Auckland Castle, said: “This is the first time Bill Viola has come back to the North East since The Messenger in 1996 and the martyrdom theme is just what we were wanting to explore here.

“I’m really excited about this. It is the first in a series of installations we are planning to pave the way for the permanent History of Faith exhibition opening here in 2018.”

Heritage Lottery Fund has recently granted £9m towards the creation of an impressive new gallery, designed by architect Níall McLaughlin, which will see Auckland Castle – already known for its valuable religious paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán – become a major visitor attraction.

The Bill Viola installation is on view until October 26. The castle is open every day except Tuesday from 10am (last admission 4pm).

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