Bill Viola/Michelangelo

Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth

An exciting new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts brings together works by pioneering video artist Bill Viola and Michelangelo for the first time. Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth includes works of transcendent beauty and raw emotional power.

Despite working five centuries apart and in radically different media, these artists explore the same universal themes.

Both share a deep preoccupation with the nature of human experience and existence.

Bill Viola/Michelangelo creates an artistic exchange between these two artists.

The exhibition is a unique opportunity to see major works from Viola’s career and Michelangelo’s drawings together for the first time.

It is the first Royal Academy exhibition largely devoted to video art.

A dialogue between two artists

The exhibition comprises 12 major video installations by Viola shown alongside 15 works by Michelangelo.

The exhibition proposes a dialogue between the two artists.

It considers Viola as an heir to a long tradition of spiritual art, making use of emotion to connect viewers with the subject matter.

Bill Viola/Michelangelo also aims to recapture the spiritual and emotional core of Michelangelo beyond the grandeur of his works.

Genesis Foundation founder and chairman John Studzinski CBE said: “Bill Viola’s art enables us to contrast the material and metaphysical worlds.

“Experiencing his work gives us greater insight into our own faith.

“Presenting Viola’s work with Michelangelo’s will create a dialogue between them on their mutual preoccupation with the presence of the divine in our lives.

“In presenting Viola/Michelangelo, the Royal Academy shares with the Genesis Foundation a commitment to attracting new audiences to art that contemplates the divine.

“As we will experience with Viola/Michelangelo, the fusing of the contemporary with the timeless creates something uniquely powerful.”

Bill Viola/Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, c. 1540 Black chalk, 28.1 x 26.8cm The British Museum, London. Exchanged with Colnaghi, 1896, 1896,0710.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Bill Viola

Honorary Royal Academician Viola first encountered the works of the Italian Renaissance in Florence in the 1970s.

A residency at the J Paul Getty Museum in 1998 renewed his interest in Renaissance art and its affinities with his own practice.

In 2006, Viola visited the Print Room at Windsor Castle to see Michelangelo’s drawings.

The visit proved a catalyst for this exhibition.

Rather than setting up direct comparisons or suggesting Michelangelo has been an instrumental influence on Viola’s work, it examines the affinities between them.

By bringing together specific works it explores resonances in how the artists treat fundamental questions.

These include the nature of being, the transience of life, and the search for a greater meaning beyond mortality.

Viola said his travels and experiences have given him an awareness of a ‘deeper tradition’ an ‘undercurrent stretching across time and cultures’.

This undercurrent is ‘the ancient spiritual tradition that is concerned with self-knowledge’.

Throughout his career, Viola has experimented with large-scale video installations.

He is one of the first artists to have conceived video on an immersive architectural scale.

Viola has increasingly utilised light, sound and time to create visceral works considering metaphysical questions about the nature of existence and reality.

Unusually for video, they give shape to inner states of being rather than mirroring the world around us.


The exhibition presents Michelangelo’s works as more than examples of genius and virtuosity.

It reveals a personality that was frequently vulnerable.

The drawings included were all created in the last 35 years of his life.

Some were gifts and expressions of love for close friends, others private meditations on his own mortality.

Religious imagery of the Virgin and Child, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection reflect on the presence of death and the eternal.

In others, references to Classical mythology act as metaphors for the human condition.

At their heart, as with Viola’s work, is an exploration of the body as a vessel for the eternal soul.

An eternal cycle of birth, life and death

An immersive journey through the cycles of life, the exhibition begins and ends with a pairing of works reflecting on a central paradox: the presence of death in life.

Michelangelo’s The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist, c. 1504-05, known as the Taddei Tondo, depicts the Baptist holding a fluttering bird from which the infant Christ recoils.

It is displayed alongside Viola’s The Messenger, 1996 (Bill Viola Studio). The Messenger uses water as a metaphor for the eternal cycle of birth, life and death.

This theme is further explored in Michelangelo’s Lamentation, c. 1540 (British Museum, London) shown facing Nantes Triptych, 1992 (Bill Viola Studio).

In Nantes Triptych, three screens portray a woman giving birth, a figure floating in a mysterious half-light and Viola’s mother on her deathbed.

Viola believes it is the awareness of our mortality that ‘defines the nature of human beings’.

Bill Viola, Fire Woman, 2005 Video/sound installation Performer: Robin Bonaccorsi Courtesy Bill Viola Studio Photo: Kira Perov

Considering mortality

The exhibition continues with a series of installations by Viola reflecting on the nature of human experience.

Set by moral and ethical choices it is besieged by fears and ultimately experienced in solitude.

At the centre of the exhibition are Michelangelo’s extraordinary Presentation Drawings of the 1530s (loaned by Her Majesty The Queen, Royal Collection, London).

He produced the drawings as gifts for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a young Roman nobleman for whom he developed a deep love.

Demonstration pieces relating to the craft of drawing with chalk, they also explore complex myths and Neoplatonic concepts.

They include the Tityus, 1532, which acts as an allegory for the opposed forms of love in Neoplatonic philosophy: the punishment of base lust devoid of spiritual love.

Further drawings by Michelangelo explore similar allegorical struggles in life, from the labours of Hercules to the fall of Phaeton.

These are shown in opposition to the quiet stillness of Viola’s Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity, 2013 (Bill Viola Studio).

Life-size images of an ageing man and woman are projected onto two black granite slabs as they slowly examine every inch of their naked bodies by torchlight.

The final galleries include a series of works that more directly consider mortality and the possibility of rebirth.

Among them are Michelangelo’s most poignant drawings, two Crucifixions from the final years of his life.

The exhibition concludes with two of Viola’s most majestic works; the monumental projections, Fire Woman, 2005, (Bill Viola Studio), and Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Waterfall Under a Mountain), 2005 (Bill Viola Studio).

They depict bodies falling and rising out of view, in different ways conjuring the body’s final journey and the passage of the spirit, in obscurity or in glory.

Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth

Bill Viola/Michelangelo is organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust.

It is curated by Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings at Royal Collection Trust; with Kira Perov, Bill Viola Studio; and Andrea Tarsia, curator, Royal Academy of Arts.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue by Martin Clayton with contributions from Kira Perov.

Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, January 26 to March 31.

Open 10am to 6pm daily with late night opening until 10pm on Fridays (last admission 9.30pm).

Main image: Bill Viola, Nantes Triptych, 1992. Video/sound installation. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio. Photo: Kira Perov

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Risen Christ, c. 1532-3 Black chalk on paper, 37.2 x 22.1cm Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Recent blogs

LUMEN: Museum of Mountain Photography

The Invisible Inbetween: An Englishman’s Search For The Irish Border

Must-see exhibitions in 2019

A Moment of Peace by Matt Goddard