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.
— Bill Viola and Kira Perov
Bill Viola,   Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)  , 2014. Photograph:   Peter Mallet

Bill Viola, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014. Photograph: Peter Mallet

About the work

Martyrs shows four individuals, across four colour vertical plasma screens, being martyred by the four classical elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The work has no sound. It lasts for seven minutes.

Bill Viola's commission for St Paul’s Cathedral follows the great historical tradition of commissions for spiritual centres that has resulted in a priceless heritage of art around the world. The result of this commission sees St Paul’s Cathedral, which has always spearheaded the engagement of great artists, house a resonant work of art for our times. Martyrs and Mary play an important role in connecting contemporary issues with the timeless themes embodied in the cathedral.

Making Martyrs

The Revd Canon Mark Oakley interviews Bill and Kira.

The Greek word for martyr originally meant ‘witness’. In today’s world, the mass media turns us all into witnesses to the suffering of others. The martyrs’ past lives of action can help illuminate our modern lives of inaction. They also exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship, and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs, and principles. This piece represents ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance, and sacrifice.
— Bill Viola

A behind-the-scenes look at the making of Martyrs.

Press Comments

We identify on a visceral human level with his protagonists’ trauma. Both their suffering and their epiphany is ours.
Rachel Spence, The Financial Times
The seven-minute cycle, for instance, is so visually mesmerising one watches it over and again to discover that the meaning deepens each time.
Laura Cummings, the Guardian
Viola transforms the idea of martyrdom from some horrific intestine-spilling scene that might terrorise a south Italian church into something eerily still, silent and thought-provoking.
Jonathan Jones, the Guardian
That the films are touching rather than unsettling is also down to their sheer beauty. The dust that rises in slow motion from the man immersed in earth is lit in such a way that it glisters — a form of alchemy, as base material becomes almost celestial.
Ben Luke, London Evening Standard

Production Credits

During production of  Martrys

During production of Martrys

Bill Viola
Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014
Color High-Definition video polyptych on four vertical plasma displays. 55" x 133" x 4" (140 x 338 x 10 cm) Duration: 7:15 minutes

Executive producer

Kira Perov


Earth: Norman Scott
Air: Sarah Steben
Fire: Darrow Igus
Water: John Hay

Core creative production team

Director: Bill Viola
Executive producer and assistant director: Kira Perov
Producer: Genevieve Anderson
Production Manager: Karen Hernandez
Director of photography: Harry Dawson
Assistant Camera: Hunter Kerhart
Technical director: Alex MacInnis
Digital Image Technician: Dan Zimbaldi
Special effects supervisor: Giuliano Fiumani
Special Effects: Scott Blackwell, Rick Peterson, Damon Sarafian
Gaffer: Bobby Wotherspoon
Electricians: Juan Barroso, Greg Jensen
Best Boys: Kelly Flood, Joel Prescott, Paul Salmi
Board Operator: Mike Hanson
Key grip: John Brunold
Grip: Brian Beverly
Wardrobe Stylists: David Norbury, Miguel Osuna
Art Director: Thomas Thurnauer
Set Photographer: Nicola Goode
Lead Production Assistant: Nick Iway
Production Assistants: Blake Viola, Kevin Roberts, Caymen Hernandez
Set Medics: Bob Butler, Nathan Mellone, Cody Wilson
Online editor: Brian Pete
Digital effects: MFX Design
Editor: Brian Pete

Design team

Stand Design: Norman Foster
Foster + Partners: David Nelson, Mike Holland, Adrian Weidman

Fabrication and installation team

Stand fabrication: Marzorati Ronchetti: John Roake, Umberto D’Aquino
Digital video system: Feltech: Inesh Patel, Andrew Diggins
Bill Viola Studio director: Bobby Jablonski

Surveyors to the Fabric of St Paul's Cathedral

Martin Stancliffe (until 2012)
Oliver Caroe (from 2012)

Clerk of the Works of St Paul's Cathedral

Martin Fletcher

Official documentarian

Gerald Fox

Project coordination

Graham Southern, Stephanie Camu