Emergence is one of a series of over twenty works that Bill Viola made as part of a study of the representation of human emotion called The Passions. The works were inspired by medieval and Renaissance painting. As Viola notes, he ‘wanted to get inside these pictures … to inhabit them, to feel them breathe…’ (Walsh 2003: 199).
Along with its baptismal resonances, the work can also be read in parallel with the story of the manna in Exodus 16, as a miraculous physical intervention that defies human understanding. The film shows—in extreme slow motion—the emergence of an almost naked man, his skin as white as hoarfrost (Exodus 16:14), from a marble sarcophagus or cistern.
Emergence is the result of Viola’s experience of the fifteenth-century Florentine artist Masolino’s fresco of Christ as the Man of Sorrows in the church of San Giovanni Battista, Empoli. The Man of Sorrows is a type of image that focuses on the naked torso of the dead Christ: his body shown half-enclosed by his marble tomb. The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist are occasionally—as in Masolino's work—shown holding his limp hands, their faces wrenched in grief.
Viola, like Masolino, does not abstract the emotion of this scene from its human forms; rather, he uses the body as his principal medium of expression.
Accompanied by choral music, set against a mottled blue background resembling the now-deteriorated blue pigment that Masolino used to evoke an abstract heavenly setting, this emergence has an undeniably miraculous quality.
Two women witness the event as though on our behalf—they stand in for us, the viewers. At the same time, they are like the Israelites in Exodus 16: recipients of an otherworldly phenomenon, testifying to it with their touch.
Viola reinforces the body’s breach of our understood physical surroundings by revealing that he has broken through the surface of still waters, as if from another world. As he rises up from this amniotic place a seemingly endless supply of clear, fresh water flows over the edges of the ‘tomb’, disrupting the women’s physical as well as emotional space: the emergence has created a change in the space in which they live. God’s divine manifestation in the wilderness is paralleled here in this body's purity and presence.
Walsh, John (ed.). 2003. ‘A Conversation: Hans Belting and Bill Viola’, in Bill Viola: The Passions (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum)
16 They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2And the whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3and said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your murmurings against the Lord. For what are we, that you murmur against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you in the evening flesh to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the Lord has heard your murmurings which you murmur against him—what are we? Your murmurings are not against us but against the Lord.”
9 And Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, ‘Come near before the Lord, for he has heard your murmurings.’ ” 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11And the Lord said to Moses, 12“I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning dew lay round about the camp. 14And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground. 15When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat. 16This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, every man of you, as much as he can eat; you shall take an omer apiece, according to the number of the persons whom each of you has in his tent.’ ” 17And the people of Israel did so; they gathered, some more, some less. 18But when they measured it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat. 19And Moses said to them, “Let no man leave any of it till the morning.” 20But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and became foul; and Moses was angry with them. 21Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.
22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers apiece; and when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay by to be kept till the morning.’ ” 24So they laid it by till the morning, as Moses bade them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. 25Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. 26Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.” 27On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. 28And the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? 29See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days; remain every man of you in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” 30So the people rested on the seventh day.
31 Now the house of Israel called its name manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. 32And Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ ” 33And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before the Lord, to be kept throughout your generations.” 34As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the testimony, to be kept. 35And the people of Israel ate the manna forty years, till they came to a habitable land; they ate the manna, till they came to the border of the land of Canaan. 36(An omer is the tenth part of an ephah.)