With his cool, detached style, and fascination with the irreverent spirit of postmodernism, Andy Warhol might seem an unlikely figure to associate with the entrenched traditions of religion. However, evidence reveals that the pop artist had enduring ties with Catholicism, all the way from childhood to the last days of his life. But how religious was he really? We take a closer look at how spiritual belief played a significant role for Warhol, throughout his life and his art.
Warhol Was Raised as a Catholic
Born in Pittsburgh in 1928, Warhol was baptized in the Byzantine Catholic Church as Andrew Warhola. With his family he attended the St John Chrysostom Byzantine Church every Sunday, and gazing up at the Biblical icons was his first taste of the spiritual power that could be invested into works of art. Religious imagery including crucifixes and icon reproductions dominated his home, too – one in particular, Warhol once recalled, was a print of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, hung in the hallway, for which he said, “When you passed it, you made a sign of the cross.” Meanwhile Warhol’s mother was a keen artist who enjoyed drawing angels in a quirky, eccentric style.
He Went to Church with His Mother
Even after moving to New York City as a young adult Warhol reportedly continued to hold on to religious habits, particularly after his mother, who was one of the most important figures in his life, came to live with him in 1952. He often accompanied her to the Church of St Vincent Ferrer on Lexington Avenue.
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When Pope John Paul VI made a visit to New York in 1965, Warhol rushed to the scene as the motorcade travelled past his Manhattan studio, gushing, “I mean… the Pope!” In 1980, Warhol went to meet Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square in Rome, and he was equally as starstruck, producing a striking photograph of the Pope that is invested with his evident awe and reverence. One might argue that Warhol treated the Pope as he would any other high profile celebrity figure, but it is clear from Warhol’s diary entries that the experience of meeting the pope filled him with anticipation.
He wrote, “The people next to me were giving him a gold plate, they were from Belgium. The mobs behind us were jumping down from their seats, it was scary. Then Fred was going to take a Polaroid but I said they’d think it was a machine gun and shoot us, so we never got a Polaroid of the pope.”
Religion Came to the Fore After He Was Shot
When Warhol was shot point-blank in 1968, the brush with death left him a changed man, with an acute awareness of his own mortality. This bolstered Warhol’s belief in life after death, and he made it his mission to attend church every Sunday, even for just the briefest of visits. Following his recovery from the incident, Warhol was photographed by Richard Avedon in 1969 pulling up a black leather jacket to reveal the extensive surgical scars left behind. The image bears a striking resemblance to Biblical portrayals of St Sebastian, the martyred saint who was pierced by arrows.
His Art Is Littered with References to Religion
Throughout his career Warhol’s art has been scattered with references to religion. Whether it is invested with genuine spiritual associations, or studies the aura of magic surrounding Biblical imagery – particularly as seen through an art historical lens – is a subject of debate. But he had no qualms about working directly with Biblical patrons; in 1967 Warhol was commissioned by the Menil family, who were closely associated with the Catholic Church, to produce a film work. Warhol’s completed artwork was titled Sunrise/Sunset (1967), a quasi-spiritual meditation on Biblical transcendence.
Following his near-death experience Warhol continued to imbue religious references in his art, including abstracted crucifixes, women with infants, and dolls dressed up as nuns or priests. It also goes without saying that Warhol treated the Hollywood stars and other public figures who populated his art as modern-day saints, likening our distanced adoration of their images to the Catholic practice of worshipping Biblical icons.
Warhol’s Last Supper Series
The final series Warhol completed before his unexpected death in 1987 was devoted to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. This monumental project, commissioned by the art dealer Alexander Iolas, was a vast and multifaceted body of work made up of numerous art forms including painting and screen prints, totaling more than 100 components. There are some raw and challenging themes explored in Warhol’s ‘Last Supper’ series, perhaps most notably the AIDS epidemic that was ravaging the queer community of New York at the time, which prompted fundamental Christian leaders to pour blame on men for their ‘sinful’ acts.
Such themes demonstrate the complex and conflicted relationship Warhol had with the Catholic Church as an openly gay man who still felt a deep connection with the core tenets of Christianity. Warhol’s close (and tumultuous) friend Lou Reed recognized this profound yet contradictory core within the pop artist, famously quipping in the song ‘Work’, from the studio album Songs for Drella (1990), “Andy was Catholic, the ethic ran through his bones.”