Art & Soul at St Paul’s Cathedral

Sandy Nairne

Art, for me, is a process of trying to wake up the soul… because we live in an industrialized, fast-paced world that prefers that the soul remain asleep.

    — Bill Viola, artist.

How does art ‘wake up the soul’? There is perhaps no better place to explore this theme than St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. Art historian Sandy Nairne walks through the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, pointing out how artists have responded to the sanctity of this historic space. He describes how early commissions by the Cathedral aimed to sustain belief in Christian worshippers, and how modern and contemporary artists including Henry Moore, Bill Viola and Mark Wallinger, have tried to express spirituality in a more secular age. In a building which receives international visitors of many faiths, the art of St Paul’s has the capacity to stir emotions in whoever takes a moment to look.

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I’m standing here in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and of course this is one of the great, great buildings of this country by Sir Christopher Wren.

And he had an idea that it would be open and light but within it, that there would be works of art.

Coming into St. Paul’s this morning I walked past a very beautiful sculpture by the artist Mark Wallinger entitled Ecce Homo. It’s the figure of Christ looking sad, pathetic, but strong and powerful, simply standing on the steps.

Now that’s not permanent, that will just be here for six weeks. And the cathedral often invites artists and designers to make works on a temporary basis.

But over the years, some great works of art have become part of St. Paul’s and those are the ones I want to show you.

One of the most important works of art in St. Paul’s is the memorial effigy of John Donne, and it’s particularly extraordinary because it was actually here in the medieval cathedral – that cathedral burned down, in the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the memorial has survived.

But it’s also extraordinary, because John Donne, the great writer and poet and finally, Dean of St. Paul’s, in the latter stage of his life, he commissioned an artist to make a drawing of him as if he had already died – in his funeral garb, and therefore the drawing by Nicholas Stone, one of the great sculptors of that period, was enacted into a sculpture only after he died in 1631. So, it stands here, as an extraordinary testimony to this great man.

Here is William Holman’s Hunt’s The Light of the World and this is one of the great works of art in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The artist, William Holman Hunt, a Pre-Raphaelite painter, was very concerned about faith in the Victorian period, he was worried about reports that there were less people in churches, less people worshipping, so he wanted to make a great, inspiring work of art, and it’s a very simple piece of symbolism. There is Christ knocking on the door, saying to everyone, I knock on the door, let me enter.

And it stands I think for the ideas of opening up worship to others, but also, to how artists can be devoted in the modern period to their ideas of art.

When we move into the twentieth century, we find artists with rather different attitudes. Far from being close to the church or close to religion itself, for many artists the church and religion was more of a question mark.

They still wanted to make works that might be about inner feelings, might be about deep emotions, and yet they were uncertain about the church.

One of the collaborations in the twentieth century at St. Paul’s is with the great, great British sculptor Henry Moore.

This is one of Henry Moore’s very last works, despite being himself an atheist and not a believer, he wanted to make a work that he calls Mother and Child: Hood, but if you like there’s a play between; is it just a mother and child or is it the Madonna and the child Jesus.

And he doesn’t define that for us. But it allows us I think to feel something protective, the mother protects the child and we can think of her as a Madonna if we want to. It’s open for us to.

This is Bill Viola’s Martyrs made in 2014 for the cathedral of St. Paul’s, and it’s one of a pair of works which were commissioned for these spaces in the Quire Aisles. Four screens, four pieces, it runs for 7 minutes, it’s silent.

Bill Viola is an American artist of international reputation and he’s one of the leaders in digital works of art. He’s always been someone who’s argued that the digital would be something as real as things material, as real as paintings, as real as sculpture.

There’s a sequence, as you can see, of earth, air, fire and water. Of course, the real idea of martyrs is those who are prepared to die for their faith. But in this case, they survive. So, this is a message of hope in this great work of art.

Yes, people are suffering but they come through and I think that’s what he wants us to contemplate ourselves. It is actually the first permanent digital work of art in any cathedral that will always run.

There’s a very nice line from Bill Viola where he says ‘I want to make works of art that will wake up the soul’. And I think it’s not that he wants to shock anybody. It’s highly respectful of its place.

And yet the idea of waking up the soul is an idea about thoughtfulness, about meditation, about how one thinks of the deeper things in the world. I think for St. Paul’s, having great works of art, in a sense, it’s simply the right compliment to a great piece of architecture.

But of course, there’s more than that. It’s then about the ideas, the thinking, the vision if you like, of artists, which is sometimes seen as very personal, in the context of a church or a cathedral, it isn’t really personal any more, it’s open for everybody.

And that sense of engagement, that sense of involvement for any of us who wish, whatever our interest, whether religious or not, to be involved, to think a little bit more, to explore deeper, that’s why works of art matter so much.

With thanks to…

Amnesty International

Bill Viola Studio

Henry Moore Foundation

Mark Wallinger

St Paul’s Cathedral




 Angelo Hornak

Alamy Stock

Bill Viola Studio

Henry Moore Foundation

National Portrait Gallery


St Paul’s Cathedral

The Press Association 



Audio Network


Full list of images shown:

Ecce Homo,

Mark Wallinger, 1999

© Mark Wallinger


The John Donne Memorial,

Nicholas Stone, 1631

Angelo Hornak / Alamy Stock Photo


Portrait of John Donne

After Isaac Oliver, c. 1565-1617

NPG 1849

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


John Donne,

Martin Droeshout, 1633

NPG D25948

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


The Light of the World

William Holman Hunt, 1851-1853

St Paul’s Cathedral


Mother and Child: Hood

Henry Moore, 1983

© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / 2018.


Henry Moore visits his statue of Mother and Child, 1984

The Press Association LTD

Object number 1948

© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / 2018.


Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)

Bill Viola, 2014
High-Definition video polyptych on four plasma displays, colour, 1400 x 3380 x 100 mm
Duration: 7.15 minutes
Executive producer: Kira Perov
Performers: Norman Scott, Sarah Steben, Darrow Igus, John Hay

© Bill Viola



Bill Viola, 2016
Color high-definition video triptych on vertical plasma displays
61 x 93 x 4 in. (155.4 x 237.2 x 9.9 cm)
Duration: 13:13 minutes
Executive producer: Kira Perov
Performers: Lola Gayle, Kian Sandgren, Alessia Patregnani, Jy Prishkulnik, Ariana Afradi, Guillermo Martinez, Deborah Puette, Braeden Marcott, Phil Pressler, Blake Viola, Shinichi Iova-Koga
Gift to Tate by Bill Viola and Kira Perov, with support from donors

© Bill Viola

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