An exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is examining legendary gay pop artist Andy Warhol’s relationship to Catholicism, an exhibit once scheduled to appear at the Vatican before being cancelled.
Raised in the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church, Warhol’s connection to his religion, and the complications that came with being a queer man, has not been studied until relatively recently.
Born to a Carpatho-Rusyn family in 1928, Warhol grew up attending multiple weekly services. According to The Andy Warhol Museum, whose first-of-its-kind exhibition on Warhol’s spiritual influences runs until February 16, the artist “retained some of his Catholic practices when his peers were distancing themselves from their religious backgrounds.” The exhibition, entitled Revelation, seeks to trace his religious roots back to his early artistic influences, such as the elaborate paintings of icons and saints that he would have stared at for hours while attending services in his home parish.
When Warhol died in 1987, art historian John Richardson commented upon Warhol’s religious nature in his eulogy, noting Warhol’s regular Mass attendance at St. Vincent Ferrer on the upper east side of Manhattan. But according to the curators of the Warhol Museum, his relationship with Catholicism was far from simple:
“As a queer man, Warhol may have felt a sense of guilt and fear towards the Catholic Church, which kept him from fully immersing himself in the faith. Nevertheless, he used various media to explore this tension through his art. From iconic portraits of celebrities to appropriated Renaissance masterpieces, Warhol flirted with styles and symbolism from Eastern and Western Catholic art history, carefully reframing them within the context of Pop. Through this process, the artist elevated kitsch and mundane images from mass media, and transformed them into sacred high art.”
National Catholic Reporter’s story added details about how Warhol negotiating his sexuality and faith was handled in the exhibit:
“‘The Catholic Body’ is a section of the exhibition that poignantly explores this tension. In one work, Warhol has overlapped an isolated image of Christ lifted from a drawing of da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ with an advertisement of a young, muscular man accompanied by the text ‘Be Somebody with a Body.’ Here, the body is a site of contesting forces — visualizing the anxieties of a man in search of physical strength coupled with an image of Christ at table. The boundary between sacred and profane dissolves as connections between the body as incarnational presence and spiritual food begin to emerge.”
Initially, the Vatican Museums had been collaborating with The Andy Warhol Museum, but then cancelled plans for the exhibit to appear in Rome. The Vatican Museums’ director Barbara Jatta said that 2019 and 2020, it would be celebrations of Leonardo da Vinci that dominate, eliminating space for the Warhol exhibit, according to ArtNet News.
The publication Artlyst now reports that similar exhibitions will be opening in the United Kingdom later this year, first at the Tate Modern and later at the National Gallery, both in London. The article notes many of Warhol’s religiously influenced pieces, such as Repent and Sin No More! (1985-1986), a black and white silkscreen painting, and Raphael Madonna-$6.99 (1985), along with more spiritually coded works such as an unfinished film reel of a setting sun.
The article concludes that “while Warhol’s engagement with faith was complex, it touched something which was fundamental, not superficial, and, as such, leaves a surprising legacy that will reward attention paid.” For anyone fortunate enough to visit any of these exhibitions, or do a little studying on their own, a fascinating lesson in how the divine influences the creative is sure to be in store.
—Melissa Feito, New Ways Ministry, February 4, 2020