Was Andy Warhol Religious?

Though it might seem surprising, religion and spirituality played a significant role in the life, and art, of Andy Warhol.

Jan 28, 2024By Rosie Lesso, Managing Editor & Curator
was andy warhol religious

 

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

A teenage Andy Warhol (center) surrounded by his family in Pittsburgh, 1940s. Source: Grailed
A teenage Andy Warhol (center) surrounded by his family in Pittsburgh, 1940s. Source: Grailed

 

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

Andy Warhol at home eating Kellogg's Corn Flakes with his mother, Julia Warhola, 1966. © Ken Heyman, courtesy Woodfin Camp Associates. Source: Tate
Andy Warhol at home eating Kellogg’s Corn Flakes with his mother, Julia Warhola, 1966. © Ken Heyman, courtesy Woodfin Camp Associates. Source: Tate

 

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.

 

Warhol meeting Pope John Paul II in 1980. Source: Angelus
Warhol meeting Pope John Paul II in 1980. Source: Angelus

 

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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.

 

Pope John Paul II, by Andy Warhol, 1980. Source: Christie’s
Pope John Paul II, by Andy Warhol, 1980. Source: Christie’s

 

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

Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1969, Richard Avedon, avedonfoundation.org. Source: Public Delivery
Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1969, Richard Avedon, avedonfoundation.org. Source: Public Delivery

 

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

The Nun, from Ingrid Bergman, by Andy Warhol, 1983. Source: Christie’s
The Nun, from Ingrid Bergman, by Andy Warhol, 1983. Source: Christie’s

 

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.

 

marilyn monroe colour
Untitled from Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol, 1967. Source: MoMA, New York

 

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

From Andy Warhol’s Last Supper series, 1987. Source: Where in Rome
From Andy Warhol’s Last Supper series, 1987. Source: Where in Rome

 

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.

 

The Last Supper (Pink), Andy Warhol, 1987. Source: Artnet
The Last Supper (Pink), Andy Warhol, 1987. Source: Artnet

 

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.”

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By Rosie LessoManaging Editor & CuratorRosie has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly and Scottish Art News. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can enrich our experience of art.