Bill Viola: Mater Dolorosa. Imagines pietatis | MARO PSYRRA



BILL VIOLA, Dolorosa, 2000, Color video diptych on two freestanding vertical LCD flat panels framed and hinged together, 11 minute loop, 16 X 24 1/2 X 5 3/4 inches, Edition of 5


Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. [1]


Over the last 30 years, art history has proved that the ideas of renegotiation of past artistic practices and the appropriation of specific art works comprise basic fields of interest from contemporary artists. From Yasumasa Morimura to Marina Abramović, from Jeff Koons to Damien Hirst, from Sophie Calle to the group Bazilebustamante, contemporary artist “worship” to modify and manipulate the images of visual tradition with a variety of means and conceptual approaches.

The mass reproduction of art works, the postmodern ideologies that consider tradition as a body of usable materials, not as a corpus valued works, the global art market and the general belief that the public “buys” what the public knows, have transformed appropriation into a fundamental element of contemporary art.

The vast tradition of western religious art became the main field of interest for contemporary artists. The appropriation of religious iconography, the ability to place religious images in different settings and, thereby, change their meaning, is a common concern in the international contemporary art scene.  Damien Hirst's “New Religion” series, Marina Abramovic’s naked “Stromboli Pieta”, Maurizio Cattelan's controversial wax sculpture known as "Pope Struck by a Meteorite", and dozen other artists criticize religion through their works and attempt to shock the viewer.

The American artist Bill Viola uses also religious iconography with a completely different way compared to other artists. Bill Viola, who studied new media art and history of art, incorporated models from the western tradition into his visual language.

In the summer of 1995, Bill Viola presented “Buried Secrets” in the 46th Biennale of Venice, representing his country in the international competition. In the last room of American pavilion, there was a life-size projected image, entitled “The Greeting”, a re-enactment of Pontormo’s altarpiece “The Visitation”.

The video artist was fascinated by the theatricality of the painting, the vibrant colors and expressive faces of the figures. So, he set up a scene similar to the Mannerist, he used actors and faithfully followed the synthesis of the work. Appropriated the visual model, Viola created a postmodern version using the possibilities of video. The “Greeting” opened up new expressive territory for Viola.

In “The Passions”, an ongoing series begun in 2000, Bill Viola created videos inspired by the iconography of “The Passion of the Christ”. The majority of his videos are characterized by extreme slow motion and absence of the sound that give the impression of a painting that slowly moves. "I am interested in what the old masters didn't paint those steps in between."[2] Bill Viola said.  In the Passions the actors' faces and bodies were used to describe extremes of individual anguish and suffering, employing references to traditional classical and Renaissance poses.

“Dolorosa” is one of the most impressive works of the series. In two LCD panels, displayed like leaves of a book, the video artist depicts the weeping of a man and a woman. The title obvious reference is “Mater Dolorosa”, the iconography type of “Virgin of Sorrow”, a popular theme in the medieval visual culture. According to the Gospels Virgin Mary experienced seven sorrows: The Prophecy of Simeon, (Luke 2:34-35), the Flight into Egypt, (Matthew 2:13), the Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple, (Luke 2:43-45), Way to Calvary, (Luke 23:26), Jesus Dies on the Cross, (John 19:25), Mary Receives the Body of Jesus in Her Arms, (Matthew 27:57-59), The Body of Jesus is Placed in the Tomb, (John 19:40-42).

Around 1475 Dieric Bouts (or his workshop) [3] painted a diptych with Christ and the Virgin. The Virgin is portrayed  as the sorrowing mother (Mater Dolorosa), her hands clasped in prayer as she turns to contemplate her suffering son Jesus Christ, in the companion picture “Ecce Hommo”. The iconography of “Ecce Homo” is derived from Jn 19.4–7 and presents Jesus mourning while wearing the crown of thorns. The subject became important in Christian art only after the late Middle Ages and under the influence of mystical interpretation of the Passion of Christ.

Bill Viola’s diptych is a clear reference to Bouts art. On the left side, Viola “portrays” a young woman with porcelain skin, rosy lips and curly hair mourning while looking upwards with her blue eyes. Her head slightly to the left is reminiscent of a Madonna and resembles with many Biblical women. On the right, we see a man, a reference to the Son, weeping also.

Bill Viola “restores" the diptych of Bouts, carries religious feeling and sense of painting, but at the same time cares for the reconstruction of history through the eyes of a man of the 21st century.  The story he wants to tell is hard to read. The two protagonists of “Dolorosa” must link in some way, because they are shown as a pair and have the same reactions. The absence of the cause of mourning, however, raises serious questions. Because for a man of the Middle Ages or Renaissance, an image of a tearful Mary could be interpreted, but for viewers of the 21st century, two people who are grieving can mean many different things.

The works of Bill Viola's Passions featured in its entirety by the absence of the cause of mourning. Starting from the imagines pietatis, Viola succeeded to harmoniously combine tradition with contemporary art.

Viewers witness a silent mourning that can not interpret. But the chorus of silence has a newfound fascination...

[1] Matthew 5, 3

[2] Zeitlin, Marilyn (ed.), Bill Viola: Buried Secrets (exh. cat.). Texts by Bill Viola, Carl Haenlein, Susie Kalil and Marilyn Zeitlin. Tempe: Arizona State University Art Museum, 1996, p. 16

[3] John Oliver believes that Mater Dolorosa is a work by Albrecht Bouts, son and disciple of Dieric Bouts. In his book refers to proposals for other stories about the Mater Dolorosa, most of which consider Dieric Bouts creator of the work. John Oliver Hand, Prayers and portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish diptych (exh. cat.), Yale University, New Heaven - London 2007, p. 40.