Find out why he may have been a better Christian than you are
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American pop artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987) is perhaps best known for his flamboyant silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe and his depiction of American commercialism, as reflected in his iconic Campbell’s Soup can. He began his career as a commercial illustrator of women’s footwear; but his talent could not be contained: he achieved success in a wide range of artistic media including sketching, painting, printmaking, photography, silk screening, sculpture, and film. He managed and produced the rock band the Velvet Underground, which helped to establish punk rock as an art form. He founded Interview Magazine, wrote numerous books, and is credited with coining the often-used phrase “15 minutes of fame.”
Despite his growing international fame and success, Warhol was an enigmatic figure, to be sure. Embraced by Hollywood elites and the avante-garde for his offbeat artistic sensibilities, he avoided the glare of the spotlight and spurned public attention. Widely believed to be homosexual, he remained celibate and was, according to his closest associates, still a virgin at the time of his death.
Warhol was a deeply private man, and among the secrets he withheld from his admiring fans was his lifelong Catholic faith. Born to Slovakian immigrants, he was raised in the Ruthenian Rite, an Eastern rite which is in communion with Rome and which uses the Divine Liturgy of the Constantinopolitan Byzantine Eastern Rite.
As a boy, he worshipped with his family at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. Later, as an adult in New York City, Warhol stopped in almost daily at St. Vincent Ferrer parish on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Sometimes he would attend Mass; then, fearful that he would be recognized, he sat quietly near the back of the church — often missing the opportunity to walk forward and receive communion, in order to avoid being noticed. On other days, he stopped into the church in the mid-afternoon, lighting a candle and spending fifteen minutes in silent prayer.
Beside his bed, Warhol placed a handmade plaster-of-paris shrine, with a crucifix and a worn prayer book on his bedside table. Under his white shirt, he wore a cross on a chain around his neck; and in his pocket, he carried a rosary.
Andy Warhol’s Catholicism was evident in his philanthropy as well as his personal piety. He was a generous supporter of several organizations including a soup kitchen operated by the Church of the Heavenly Rest, an Episcopal church on E. 90th Street. Not content to only help financially, Warhol volunteered at the soup kitchen, ladling soup or helping in any way he could. And when his nephew announced that he wanted to become a Catholic priest, Warhol stepped up to finance the young man’s years of seminary study.
In his eulogy at Warhol’s funeral, British art historian John Richardson said,
I’d like to recall a side of his character that he hid from all but his closest friends: his spiritual side. Those of you who knew him in circumstances that were the antithesis of spiritual may be surprised that such a side existed. But exist it did, and it’s key to the artist’s psyche. Although Andy was perceived – with some justice – as a passive observer who never imposed his beliefs on other people, he could on occasion be an effective proselytizer. To my certain knowledge, he was responsible for at least one conversion.
He took considerable pride in financing his nephew’s studies for the priesthood. And he regularly helped out at a shelter serving meals to the homeless and hungry. Trust Andy to have kept these activities in the dark. The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour, and that he could be cool to the point of callousness. Never take Andy at face value…
Despite the secrecy with which he guarded his religious identity, Warhol often included religious imagery in his artwork. His recreation of DaVinci’s Last Supper, as well as his paintings of Jesus Christ and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, helped to popularize the classical works from which they were derived.
Warhol began to employ religious motifs more frequently in his work in the 1980s. Sharon Matt Atkins, coordinating curator of a 2010 exhibit of Warhol’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, said, “After Warhol turned 50, he began a reassessment of his career. We also start to see Warhol reflecting on the inevitability of his own death.”
According to Joseph Ketner, curator of the exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the image of Christ and disciples obsessed him. In fact, in the last year of his life, Warhol painted more than 100 images which drew their inspiration from DaVinci’s Renaissance-era painting of “The Last Supper.” Three of the Last Supper images are larger than life, measuring 25 feet by 35 feet in length. Another piece, according to Atkins, juxtaposes a quartet of Christs with a trio of motorcycles, a swooping red eagle and a $6.99 price tag, emblematic of Warhol’s outward irreverence but also revealing of his inner spirituality. And the largest painting in the religious collection incorporates 112 portraits of Christ.
If you misjudged Andy Warhol as a fame- and money-seeking dissolute, you could make amends by praying for his soul and/or the souls of his family members or friends who may still be in Purgatory.
Kathy Schifferis a freelance writer and speaker, and her blog Seasons of Grace can be found on the Catholic Portal at Patheos.