Auckland Castle shows faith in contemporary art

A four-screen video work by Bill Viola to be unveiled this month is the first in a series of installations reflecting on the role of religion in Britain


The US artist Bill Viola is due to install a version of his four-screen video work Martyrs, above the altar in St Peter’s Chapel at Auckland Castle, County Durham, England, on 12 June. The four films depict three men and a woman enduring trials by the four elements. A larger edition was permanently installed in St Paul’s Cathedral in London last May.

The show (until 26 October) is the first by a contemporary artist at Auckland Castle and marks the beginning of a series of installations that reflect on the role of religion in the British Isles from pre-history to the present. The plan is to create a permanent national exhibition on faith in 11 new galleries, due to open at the castle in 2018 as part of a £17m refurbishment.

Chris Ferguson, the curatorial and exhibition director at Auckland Castle, says he has not yet discussed whether Viola’s four videos, Earth Martyr, Air Martyr, Fire Martyr and Water Martyr (all 2014), will form part of the permanent exhibition at Durham. “But we would definitely like to work with Bill Viola again,” he says, adding that the theme of martyrdom will be explored in the larger show.

A number of works have already been donated or bought by the castle, which has a small acquisition budget. They include the Cottingham Tank (a Viking baptismal font that represents a fusion of pagan and Christian beliefs) and four rare 16th-century pre-Reformation stained glass panels from Compton Verney, a country home in Warwickshire.

“We are also working with regional and national museums, including the British Museum, to secure works on medium-term loan,” Ferguson says.