On April 2, 1980, Andy Warhol—lifelong Catholic—met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. “Andy was wearing a tie and low-key version of his signature wig: both suggesting a sign of his respect,” Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni told me. She was the last employee that Warhol hired at his studio, and like other members of his inner circle—from his business manager Fred Hughes to filmmaker Paul Morrissey—was Catholic.
Warhol will soon be going back to the Vatican. The Art Newspaper reports the Vatican Museums and the Andy Warhol Museum are finalizing a dual exhibition of Warhol’s religious works in Rome and the artist’s native Pittsburgh, planned for 2019.
The Vatican Museums and the Andy Warhol Museum are finalizing a dual exhibition of Warhol’s religious works.
Included is Warhol’s expansive “The Last Supper” series: silkscreens and paintings first exhibited a month before his death. In his eulogy for Warhol, art historian John Richardson said the artist “fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, and glamor and that he was cool to the point of callousness.” Instead, “the callous observer was in fact a recording angel. And Andy’s detachment—the distance he established between the world and himself—was above all a matter of innocence and of art.”
Warhol owed that sense of detachment to his Ruthenian strain of Catholicism. This was the world of his immigrant mother, who accompanied him to Mass several services a week. At St. John Chrysostom in Pittsburgh, the priest’s Slavonic Mass was framed by the grand iconostasis, a white-paneled grid of “portraits of the saints,” according to Bob Colacello, one of Warhol’s biographers. “Very two-dimensional, with gold-leaf backgrounds...which is so much like his work, especially his portraits.” The hours of devotion and spectacle introduced Warhol to a mystical world that was his first experience with the transformative capabilities of faith and art.
Warhol’s work was anchored in the cross.
“Being brought up Catholic gives a sense of hierarchical order, discipline, and faith. Faith, when embraced, anchors the creative,” Ms. Fraser-Cavassoni said.
Warhol’s work was anchored in the cross. His first grand religious works was a series of crosses in 1982: red and yellow, 90 by 70 inches, silkscreened against black. In other paintings, crosses are scattered. For Warhol, the world was suffused with Christ. He chose the paradox of representing that truth by illuminating those stripped-down crosses against an expanse of darkness—very much a light for the world.
The Vatican’s exhibition should reveal that Warhol’s Catholicism was essential to his artistic vision of the body, of iconography and of the radical energy of faith. Warhol wasn’t being heretical when he placed General Electric and Dove logos onto Da Vinci’s Christ-centered canvas. He was creating his own iconostasis. He was sharing a world of ritual and symbol and, yes, salvation.
What does it say about the world of art if it fails to realize Warhol’s religious vision? There is perhaps a more pressing question: What does it say about Catholics if they fail to see in Warhol’s art one of their own?
Colacello said Warhol was a “religious artist for a secular society.” His return to the Vatican was inevitable. Warhol is going home.