AMERICAN artist Bill Viola’s installation on the theme of martyrdom in the chapel at Auckland Castle heralds a new chapter for the former palace of the Bishops of Durham where the UK’s first museum in faith history is scheduled to open in 2018.

The four flat screen panels – Earth Martyr, Air Martyr, Fire Martyr and Water Martyr – are derived from his large-scale video work, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) first shown at St Paul’s Cathedral in London last year.

The presentation of this work by a leading international artist is one of the most important exhibitions to come to the region in recent years and is expected to attract crowds of visitors to Bishop Auckland in the coming months. It will remain on show until October 26.

It is the first time a contemporary work has been displayed in the 350-year-old chapel and the exhibition forms part of the anniversary.

In a challenging and compelling seven-minute silent video, each of the panels shows a single figure accepting a terrible/glorious death by one of the elements – earth, air, fire or water – with no hint of struggle.

The work invites meditation on the power of religious belief to take individuals to the limits of physical endurance for the sake of something greater than themselves.

The subject feeds into ideas that will come to fruition in a £17m Heritage Lottery-funded scheme to create the country’s first faith history museum to be housed in a new gallery extension alongside a renovated old wing. Building work is due to start next spring.

Art works and objects of veneration, ranging from items such as a personal rosary to a grand altar piece, will explore the place of belief in people’s lives in the British Isles from prehistory to today.

It will be the first time the nation’s devotional story, including the important part the North East has played in Christian beliefs with the Venerable Bede writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People at Jarrow, the monks of Lindisfarne and the Gothic cathedral at Durham – has been told in one place.

Viola’s installation, contemporary in its use of filmic techniques and effects, references the style of dramatic illumination found in Spanish art and depictions of soulful martyrs in Italian renaissance paintings. Each figure is highlighted against a black background as if stage-lit from the wings, reminiscent of the theatricality of Caravaggio, while the pictorial realism is as potent as in paintings by Zurbaran, whose pictures of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob and his sons hang in the upper floor state rooms of the castle.

As they endure suffocation beneath soil, a piercing wind, immolation or drowning in a cascade of water, the composure of the captives is similar to images of stoical saints at the point of death in Italian paintings, eyes raised to heaven, a motif echoed in one of the works at the end of the sequence when a refulgent glow falls upon an upturned face.

Situated close to a stained glass window depicting the martyrdom of St Peter, the works challenge the unreflective, unemotional, traditional form of Christianity in Britain and provoke thoughts about faiths where martyrdom remains a factor.

The paradox is that the basic elements of life have been deployed, contrary to nature, to inflict death. The immobility of the bodies, which are not despoiled in any way, transcends agony to make each death a sacrificial choice.

It may leave the prosaically-minded viewer reflecting not so much on the glory, but on the profanity that is not seen: the hands that tied the ropes and turned elements of life into instruments of torture and execution.

Viola, who lives in California, is celebrated for video works that inspire meditation. His last piece in the North-East was the specially commissioned The Messenger at Durham Cathedral in 1996.

The faith museum project will lead to 34 apprenticeships being offered in construction and related skills and the recruiting of about 400 volunteers. With other plans afoot including a gallery of Spanish art in the town centre and sound and light spectacular in the countryside close by, Bishop Auckland looks set for its own renaissance – due in large part to art.