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How does Andy Warhol’s faith impact his work? Another look at the Catholic Warhol

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

On 1st April 1987, over 2000 people including some of the most popular artists, actors, and celebrities attended St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a memorial mass, honouring the one and only ‘Pope of Pop’, Andy Warhol.

Among them were famous names from the 70s, such as Roy Halston the fashion designer, Liza Minnelli the Award winning actress, and even Princess Michael of Greece (Glueck1987). Sir John Richardson, a long-term friend of Warhol from the 60s, along with artist Yoko Ono and Nicholas Love each eulogised the late artist among the crowd. Richardson, in particular, gave a speech that would change the art world’s view on Warhol and his work for decades to come. He revealed how Warhol’s Catholic faith had influenced his life and work throughout his career. It was not an image of Warhol familiar to the public; many were, ‘fooled into believing his only obsessions were money, fame and glamour’ (Davis, 2018).It was this ‘secret piety’, as Richardson phrased it, that inevitably changed the perceived persona of Warhol that he had created in the 60s at his ‘trendy and often scandalous Factory Studio’ (DeChant, 2012).

Warhol had crafted a public persona which was known to the world, whether it was through his work at the Factory, or the artist’s own record through his hundreds of photographs and films. Many would opine about him, as Professor Jane Dillenberger described in The Religious Art of Andy Warhol (1998)’, as one, ‘with money, fame, and glamour, his voyeurism, and his unflappable coolness are well known… an avaricious entrepreneur to many.’ However, there also existed another persona, ‘a private one, a shy, reclusive, and religious Andy’. This, Warhol hid from but a few of his closest friends including, of course Richardson whom he had mentioned multiple times in his Diaries (1989).

The ‘spiritual side’ (Richardson, 1987) was though concealed in his lifestyle, could be seen in his work if one studied intently. One of the main reasons why Dillenberger took another look into Warhol was due to her curiosity surrounding a painting inspired by DaVinci ‘Last Supper’ (1498) hanging in his late studio. For that reason, I must ask how had Warhol’s faith in actuality, impact his work throughout his career? How had his upbringing by his mother, Julia Warhola, had influenced his internal pursuit of God in Catholicism? Then ultimately, how was that manifested in his work and what can I take away from Warhol’s story as a Christian media practitioner in the Modern West?

The Warhola Crucifix

Andrew Warhola was born on August 6, 1928 in Pittsburgh to Andrej and Julia Warhola, two Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. The family lived in the Ruska Dolina, the Ruthenian section of Pittsburgh, where the ethnic way of life – including the habit of churchgoing – was well-preserved. The Byzantine Catholic Church, the one Warhol grew up attending, maintained various Ancient Eastern European cultural traditions, such as the use of Byzantine calendar of which celebrated Christmas on the January 7th.

It was recorded that Warhol’s father, Andrej Warhola was a hardworking devout Catholic who had very much incorporated his faith into his lifestyle. Recounted by Warhol and his brothers, Andrej Warhola would pray before meals and also enforced a day of rest, a sabbatical tradition passed down over the centuries from the Jewish Old Testament times (Dillenberger, 1998, p.17). Following his father’s unfortunate passing in 1942 due to tuberculosis, Julia Warhola continued to be a major influence on his faith even until he relocated to New York after graduating from University. Warhol moved into a blue collar Ukrainian neighbourhood with the soon to be famous Modern Artist, Phillip Pearlstein – then only a fellow student at Carnegie Tech. However, in spite of the dramatic change of environment, Warhol never lost sight of his faith but was ‘forever popping into church’ (Richardson, 1987 cited in Dillebenger, 1998, p.21).

Warhol’s churchgoing habit was perhaps one of the most active manifestations of his faith, having been reported that he would frequently be there more than a few times a week (Doss and Kane, 2019). He also prayed on his own at church alongside the morning prayers with his mother; with one diary entry on April 17th , 1977 saying, ‘Went to church and while I was kneeling and praying for money, a shopping-bag lady came in and asked me for some’ (Warhol and Hackett, 1989, p.61). On another occasion when Warhol was getting medically tested and a few days later he wrote later on June 20th, 1977, ‘I called the doctor and he said to come by at 12:00. I was late because I was nervous. It was good news, it wasn’t what they thought it might be. But now my neck is swollen and it hurts. I guess I shouldn’t have had it done. Right after the doctor’s office I went to church to thank God’ (Warhol and Hackett, 1989, p.72).

Therefore, Warhol’s faith was not one simply of tradition or customs but instead it did indeed play a huge role in his personal life. God was very much an important person to him, and though Warhol did not advertise this fact, it was nevertheless authentic and ritualistic. In particularly, as seen in the latter entry above where he went to church and thanked God for his health, this was a vital detail in understanding his faith.

Although, Catholicism is a branch of Christianity, meaning it holds the belief that God was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ; it was also a very materialistic one (Doss and Kane, 2019). The faith revolves highly around cathedrals , robes, paintings, and crucifixes – one of which Warhol kept one next to the bed in his 66th Street apartment. On the other hand, the scenery looks very different in Protestant communities where believers are more careful with regards to objects. As a Christian my understanding is that, it is due to the fear of idolatry which God explicitly detests. In the Ten Commandments God said to the people of Israel, ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3 NIV), then followed with, ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or from the waters below… I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God’ (Exodus 20:4 NIV).

Christians view their faith as a relationship with God in Christ Jesus. This is best depicted in Christ’s own words, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5 NIV). Although Catholics share this perspective including Warhol, as evident through his urge to talk to God right after receiving the test results; the two branches of Christianity inevitably diverge on the matter of sacred materials.

Doss and Kane (2019) argued that without materials, there could be no religion, especially in Catholicism. They raised the example of the St. Jude prayer card which became a popular tool for believers in the 30s during the Great Depression. Jude was one of the brothers of Jesus and even had a short recorded letter to the Jewish Christians at the time in the Bible.

He emerged as a Saint who was believed to be the advocate for the desperate due to his kind and gentle image. St. Jude prayer cards’ popularity exploded from then on, and Catholics all over the world would purchase a copy for their prayers. Nevertheless, it does not matter if a believer was carrying ‘a copy of a copy of a copy’ since the card still carried the same force, namely sacredness.

This underlying idea for the mass production of sacred objects was apparent in Warhol’s work. An example would be the ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)’ which was a collective work of thirty-two canvases with one for each flavour. The piece was produced using a combination of projection, tracing, painting, and stamping, challenging the abstract expressionists’ idea of originality (MoMA, 2020). While I am not arguing that Campbell’s soup cans were sacred to Warhol; the theme of an object’s significance being preserved through mechanical production was, nevertheless, key in observing Catholic influences in his work until the end of his career. In 1986, a year before his passing, Warhol exhibited the ‘Sixty Last Supper’, a collage of sixty Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘Last Supper (1498)’ paintings aligned next to one another. One last touch of religious material replication before the artist’s eventual ‘sleep’.

In addition to production, Warhol’s understanding and experience of his faith had also shaped the imagery of his art. Early in his career as a commercial artist, Warhol illustrated a series of Christmas cards for the brand Tiffany & Co. such as ‘The Star of Wonder (1958)’ which depicted a star made from of doves; an obvious inspiration from the Nativity story. In the Gospel accounts, the star was a guide for the Magi to find the birthplace of Christ, ‘they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was’ (Matthew 2:9 NIV). Furthermore, the image of the Dove was also drawn from Jesus’s baptism when, ‘the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him…’ Then God said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased’. (Matthew 3:16-17 NIV).

Another example from the same series, only known as the ‘Golden Hand with Creche (1957)’ featured, ‘a golden hand holding the tiny creche within its palm, the Virgin seated on the ground with the nude of Christ child lying across her knees’ (Dillenberger, 1998, p.25). A common relationship that Biblical characters had with God was one of intimate trust and deliverance; ‘the hand of God’ was a symbolic poetry illustration of his care. King David wrote when he was in exile, ‘ Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me’ (Psalm 63:7-8 NIV). In the New Testament the Apostle Peter wrote, ‘Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5:6 NIV).

Warhol, despite being taken the wrong way due to his superficial public persona, had indeed carried his ‘secret piety’ all the way from the beginning. As a matter of fact, the faith he bared was who he really was. It might not be obvious in his art, and certainly not all his works were based on Catholicism. However, in one way or another they were exhibitions of a man whose roots were deeply sown into the Catholic faith and its artifacts.

The Warhol Factory

The American art world of the 50s was dominated by Abstract Expressionism. The idea was that art should come from the unconscious mind in order to be abstract and yet expressive emotionally (Tate, c. 2020). Before Warhol became a pop artist, he worked in commercial art and started to use products for his art experiments. In one instance, he invited Emile de Antonio, a friend and inspiration to Warhol, to his place so he could comment on some new work. Warhol recorded this encounter in his book ‘Popism: The Warhol ‘60s (1980), ‘I had done two paintings, each about six feet high and three feet wide…One of them was a Coke bottle with Abstract Expressionist hash marks halfway up the side. The second one was just a stark, outlined Coke bottle in black and white.’

It was one of the earliest dives into pop by Warhol, who at the time was still not sure where he would go with his art. De Antonio replied, ‘Well, look, Andy… One of these is a piece of shit, simply a little bit of everything. The other is remarkable – it’s our society, it’s who we are, it’s absolutely beautiful and naked, and you ought to destroy the first one and show the other (Warhol and Hackett, 1980, p.6). Warhol took that afternoon to heart, and one could say that was when he determined to reject Abstract Expressionism in exchange for pop art.

The idea to make art out of the everyday that, ‘anybody walking down the Broadway could recognise in a split second’ (Warhol and Hackett, 1980, p.3), was what defined and inspired the pop art movement. And it was not simply the objects themselves but also to challenge establishment art at the time.

In 1964, Warhol opened his own art studio in a large silver-painted warehouse known as ‘The Factory’. By then, the silk-screening mechanical production art style was very much ingrained with his identity as an artist. Take ‘Flowers (1964)’, which depicted a series of flowers on canvas printed into different colours. Dr. Jonathan Anderson of Biola University made reference to it in a lecture (2020), as characteristic evidence of, ‘Warhol’s low tech mimicking of mass production, both the mass production of consumer products and imageries’. Warhol, when describing the process of silk-screening commented, ‘That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it’ (Warhol and Hackett, 1980, p.22).

Anderson (2020) described the ideology behind Warhol’s style with the Dutch painting ‘Flowers in a Glass Vase’ (1704)’ by Rachel Ruysch. He elaborated that Ruysch combined rare and precious flowers from all seasons in a year into one and that, ‘it was a painting of desire, and of gratitude that the Earth gives this, it gives so much that is pleasing to look at, and good’. However, on the other hand, it decays and the fleeting of life lies in the undercurrent as insects crawling about eating off the flowers. This theme was heavily inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes of the Bible, which articulated the march of time and the fleeting nature of life in the words of the ‘teacher’. For example, the ‘teacher’ begins by saying, ‘Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains for ever’ (Ecclesiastes, 1:4 NIV). And later he speaks a poem about time, ‘there is a time for everything… a time to be born and a time to die’ (Ibid 3:1-2 NIV). On first glance, it could seem like the ‘teacher’ was being a critic but in reality he was merely attempting to shift the reader’s perspective of life that because, ‘all share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked’ (Ibid 9:2 NIV), therefore, ‘Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless (fleeting) life that God has given you under the sun’ (Ibid 9:9 NIV).

The teacher is illustrating how fleeting this world is, and so we as people under the sun should enjoy life in creation which God has made. Thus, it is the idea of simply enjoying and appreciating the everyday which Warhol had based his pop art on. As in De Antonio’s cited comment earlier, it is about who we are and the beauty of it. The ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)’ namely, was a mechanical still life painting of his daily lunch, ‘for twenty years I guess, the same thing over and over again’ (Warhol, cited in MoMA, 2020). In the same period when he exhibited the ‘200 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)’ where the cans were so densely stacked together that it had become a landscape of its own (Anderson, 2020). Warhol utilised silk-screening to paint day to day objects and consumer products in a revolutionary way; drawing inspirations from the visible and plain. As Warhol himself said, ‘Pop Art is a way of liking things’ (Danto, 1994, cited in Dillebenger, 1998, p.27).

Although pop art was criticised harshly by some at the time, with one critic commenting that, ‘the works leave us thoroughly dissatisfied, most of them have nothing to say at all’ (Selz, 1963, cited in Dillebenger, 1998, p.27). Warhol nonetheless, persevered in exploring ideas outwardly, ‘I was never embarrassed about asking someone, literally ,”What should I paint?” because Pop comes from the outside’ (Warhol and Hackett, 1980, p.16).

For instance, the ‘Silver Car Crash in Death and Disaster (1963)’ series, exhibited in the same period as the ‘Campbell Soup Cans (1962)’ depicted, ‘photographs from actual car crashes showing demolished ambulances and victims spilled onto the highway in pools of their own blood’ (Dillebenger, 1998, p.66). It was Henry Geldzahler who suggested the idea while having lunch with Warhol one day; based on the jet accident news headline that day (Warhol and Hackett, 1980). Warhol, by displaying these gruesome photographs side by side forced the viewers to recognise the fragility of life and just how fleeting it really is. It was not about who was in the accident or how was it caused but instead the plain reality that it could be anyone in any moment. In an interview he recounted an instant when he was coming out of a movie, ‘somebody threw a cherry bomb right in front of us… I saw blood on people and all over… I felt like I was bleeding all over’ (Swenson, 1963, cited in Dillebenger, 1998, p.67).

And indeed Warhol would have a close encounter with death in 1968, when the troubled film star Valerie Solanas shot Warhol twice in the Factory and penetrating a number of his organs. He was taken to the Columbus Hospital and was in surgery for five hours. At one point he was dead but, ‘they brought me back from the dead, literally… This is what it’s like to be dead – you think you’re alive but you are dead’ (Warhol and Hackett, 1980, p.274). Warhol while in hospital, promised God that he would go to church every Sunday if he lived through it, and had kept his words after he was discharged (Colacello, 1990).

Therefore, in summary, Warhol’s pop art was driven by the idea that creation itself is already beautiful as it is. His Catholic faith as mentioned before, had exposed him to the notion of connecting with God through objects and artifacts. It was this underlying theme that was carried on through into the conception of many of his works in the Factory with a dose of American consumerism. On the other hand, the brief nature of life including those we so desire, had also inspired him in his works during the same period. This was reflected especially through his fateful experience of getting shot when he was forced to face the message of Ecclesiastes that life under the sun is indeed, fleeting.

The Warhol Secret Place

Warhol, despite being a devout Catholic, had been resistant towards fully immersing himself into the community of faith throughout his life. In fact, despite attending church often, Warhol never took part in the Holy Communion and confession which are two key relational rituals in Catholicism (Anderson, 2020). He would either go between services or had only had a brief stay in church before and after business. For example, on March 13th, 1977 he recorded, ‘It was raining hard all day long. Went to church. Paulette called and we talked about Dinner with Haltson and I told her it was ripped off from me, and she also said better not tell anybody’ (Warhol and Hackett, 1989, p.44). In addition, on February 9th, 1978, ‘she was getting baptised this morning and that we should go up to the church. It only took a minute. Suzie got baptised and her hair got wet, and we went back to her house for coffee’ (Warhol and Hackett, 1989, p.152).

There were over a hundred times in Warhol’s Diaries recording him going in and out of church, however, he rarely stayed long and never spoke about engaging with the wider community. This was unusual among believers as Catholicism emphasises quite heavily the importance of the collective. Tracing back all the way to beginning of the Bible, God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’ (Genesis, 2:18 NIV), till into the New Testament the Apostle Paul wrote, ‘Bearing with one another in love… There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all’ (Ephesians 4:2-6 NIV). For that reason, it is safe to suggest that there was some obstacle standing in between, namely his gay identity and the life he led as an artist.

Anderson (2020) said that, ‘his studio, the Factory was famously a place for sex, drugs and rock n’roll’, and later quoted Warhol’s priest in New York on the subject, ‘it is due to the artist’s lifestyle being absolutely irreconcilable with Catholic moral doctrine’. Therefore, in understanding Warhol, it is important not to pit his gay identity and Factory lifestyle against his religious faith. Instead, one should embrace the fact that we are looking at a man who had a complex and dynamic character. The avaricious entrepreneur and the religious Andy, mentioned in the beginning, coexisting in parallel and struggle (Dillenberger, 1998).

The American Anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote in the ‘Birth and Death of Meaning (1962)’ , ‘We are, in reality, somewhat split in two, the self and the body; the one hidden, the other open’. Becker argued that as humans, we naturally developed an instinct to separate our inner character (the self) from the public persona (the body). And the key to achieving that was the distinct ability to keep secrets, ‘it is a great and liberating moment… free from the prying eyes of the world’ (Becker, 1962, p.46).

The Bible recognises this idea in the form of ‘the secret place’. In various points of the story, the Biblical characters were pressured by circumstances into confronting their inner-self where they could truly relate to God in authenticity. Sometimes the secret place was poetry, such as when the Psalmist was in danger he wrote, ‘Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty… He is my refuge and my fortress, my God whom I trust’ (Psalm 91: 1-2 NIV). Other times, it was depicted in a literal sense, as when Jesus prayed to the Father after the Last Supper about his impending death, ‘Jesus went out to the Mount of Olives… he withdrew and knelt down to pray… his sweat was like drops of blood falling on the ground’ (Luke 22: 39-44 NIV).

The point is, one could craft their ‘body’ however they liked but in doing so it would also grow further apart from the ‘self’. One way or another, he would have to go back to the secret place to reckon both with God. I argue that was what Warhol had been dancing on which was expressed through art in his late career.

In 1986, the art dealer Alexandre Iolas commissioned Warhol to create the Leonardo ‘Last Supper (1986)’. It would later be exhibited in Milan across the street of DaVinci’s original ‘Last Supper (1498)’. Warhol was no stranger to the piece, as his brother recalled that a copy of the ‘Last Supper (1498)’ hung on the walls of the kitchen in the Warhola family home in Pittsburgh (Warhola, 1994, cited in Dillenberger, 1998, p.80).

DaVinci’s Last Supper depicted one of the climatic scene in the Gospel story, with the turn of events that would lead to Christ’s crucifixion about to be unfolded. Jesus and his twelve closest disciples shared the last Passover meal before his death on the night of the sabbath. It was a scene of choices and consequences. Judas, one of the twelve, had agreed to hand Jesus over to the Jewish leaders in exchange for money (Luke 22: 2-5 NIV). On the other hand, Christ – knowing this was so - chose to trust God nonetheless with his life, and fulfilled the covenant till his death as he cried out on the cross, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30 NIV).

Warhol had created a number of paintings for the Last Supper Exhibition, and among the most prominent was the ‘Sixty Last Suppers (1986)’. A grid of sixty DaVinci’s Last Supper images lined up ten by six with a dose of Warhol’s pop art display. The painting compelled a physical relationship with the viewer as its sheer size forced one to step back in order to examine it (Dillenberger, 1998). The piece combined Warhol’s repetitive mechanical art style along with his inner reflection of Christ. In an interview Warhol commented, ‘I just like to do the same thing over and over again… It’s a way of expressing one-self… All my images are the same but very different at the same time… They change with the light of colours, with the times and the moods… Isn’t life a series of images that changes as they repeat themselves?’ (Warhol, 1982, cited in Dillenberger, 1998, p.116). Indeed, the painting was laid out like, ‘stacks of miniature television screens, the details of Leonardo’s image faded by their shadows’ (Beck, 2017).

Standing in front of the sixty ‘screens’ of Christ, the viewer was locked into gaze with Jesus and the Apostles wondering what was happening in the scene. It was discerned that Leonardo was attempting to illustrate two key moments of the supper simultaneously; the giving of the Holy Communion and the announcement of the traitor Judas (Harris and Zucker, n.d.). In the Gospel accounts, ‘Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them (apostles), saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22: 19 NIV). Later in the meal he added, ‘The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!’ (Luke 22: 22 NIV).

Therefore, one can argue that the painting was a representation of Warhol’s ‘secret place’ reflection manifested in his public art. An attempt of inner reckoning of his sexuality and lifestyle in the face of Christ. By laying it out repetitively, as he had always done, Warhol had successfully displayed everything in front of him as he reflected whether he was part of the promised or the condemned. In other words, he hid his ‘self’ with the ‘body’ in plain sight.

This would be consistent with Warhol’s character. Colacello (1990) once recounted a time in Mexico City when Warhol expressed his feeling of depression, as well as, a number of opinions on other artists’ works. However, later when a reporter came to interview Warhol, he put his ‘fake Andy’ persona back on. As evident, the fact that Warhol poured his heart out to Colacello one moment then returned to his public face afterwards does not mean that it no longer existed. Instead, it was simply concealed, hid underneath and alongside the ‘cool Andy’.

In the end, there is no way to tell what conclusion Warhol had managed to reach in his times of wrestling before he eventually passed away in 1987. What could be discerned however was that he had undoubtedly carried two simultaneous versions of himself during his life. Whether it was the brief church visits or the morning prayers with his mother, Warhol had found himself going back and forth between two worlds with only a narrow window which he stood on. As Warhol himself illustrated in 1985, ‘Heaven and Hell are just one breath away!’.

The Warhol Last Supper

Jesus left his disciples with communion in the last supper shortly before his death in the New Testament. So what did Warhol leave me with?

One of the things Warhol and I share is the appreciation of the everyday through our work. As a photographer, I believe that photography is a bridge for people to view and enjoy creation from a different perspective. Take ‘The Lens of the Earth (2019)’, a photograph depicting a fellow photographer standing in front of the sunset holding his camera. It struck similar note to Warhol’s film ‘Sunset (1967)’, a thirty three minute unfinished film shot over the California Pacific Ocean. Anderson (2020) remarked that the Catholic Church commissioned the film with the aiming of fitting all denominations in communion. Warhol picked to film a series of sunsets, while having one of the members of the rock band ‘Velvet Underground’ reciting a poem on the beauty of life and death. The reality of Ecclesiastes’ message is plain and apparent in photography, as every image is literally the record of that particular moment, one that had not happened before and would never again. However, I would argue that my work has gone a step even further than Warhol in that regard. Throughout Warhol’s career, a number of his works like the ‘Death and Disaster Series (1963)’, as touched on before, was a reflection of his horror of death and fear of the fleeting life (Cripps, 2005). Nevertheless, as a Christian, I believe creation although beautiful is simply a reflection of the one who made it. Therefore, the beauty does not lie in our ability to seize scenery but simply by being able to put down the camera and truly appreciate it.

In the end, Warhol was an artist with a complex and dynamic character. He had successfully re-defined the art of his time but underneath had always lied the roots of his ‘secret piety’. It was one that had been sown into his psyche during his upbringing and indeed stayed with him till his final breath. All of which Warhol had kept dark in his secret place and had let it impact his work on the canvas (Richardson, 1987).

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