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)