Andy Warhol (1928–1987) was one of the best-known artists of the twentieth century, yet the influence of his immigrant roots, upbringing in the Byzantine Catholic faith, and lifelong engagement with religious themes and imagery remain obscure. From iconic portraits of celebrities to appropriated Renaissance masterpieces, Warhol flirted with styles and symbolism from Eastern and Western Catholic art history, reframing them within the context of Pop art and culture. Transforming everyday images from mass media into sacred high art, Warhol experimented with fresh artistic approaches while exploring traditional themes of power, desire, life, and death.
Throughout his career as a celebrity artist, Warhol practiced Catholic rituals while also unapologetically living as a gay man within a circle of social outcasts known for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He entangled queer desire with Catholic imagery in works animated by the contradictions and complexities of his faith. This lived tension exemplifies the dualities inherent in Warhol’s production, varying between sincerity and superficiality, revealing and hiding, traditional and avant-garde. Such Warholian ambiguity reflects the reality that many LGBTQ+ people face within religions that condemn sexuality and/or gender identity, as well as the struggles of Catholics whose beliefs are at odds with the church’s ties to colonialism, patriarchy, and systemic sexual abuse.
Andy Warhol: Revelation is the first exhibition to examine how the iconic Pop artist’s Catholic faith influenced his art.
Andy Warhol: A Brief Biography
“I shot the picture in Andy’s office. I placed two Bibles on either side to frame the photo. On Sundays, he would be walked to church by my friend Wilfredo [the fashion editor of Interview] who worked for Benjamin Liu [also a friend of Andy]. Andy went to church pretty much every Sunday. He was in New York since he had been shot. This was also around the time he was painting the “Last Supper” series. I remember this so clearly because those paintings were huge and magnificent. They had great impact on me; it was one of the few times I ever got to see Andy actually painting with brush in hand. . . .Of course, no one knew it was to be Andy’s last portrait . . . ”
Andy Warhol emerged during the 1960s as a leading proponent of Pop art, a movement that derived its imagery from popular culture and mass media. An innovative and versatile painter, printmaker, commercial illustrator, publisher, filmmaker, music and television producer, author, and tabloid star, Warhol had a career spanning four decades and is one of the most recognizable and studied artists of the twentieth century.
Born Andrew Warhola in 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he was the youngest son of Andrej Warhola and Julia Zavacky Warhola, immigrants from what is now Slovakia in Eastern Europe. Warhol’s mother encouraged his early interest in art, and, after graduating from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology—he was the first in his family to go to college—he moved to New York City in 1949 to pursue a career as a commercial artist, before turning to so-called fine art.
In direct opposition to the macho Abstract Expressionists who dominated that era, Warhol appropriated images directly from popular culture. Making use of mechanical art-making techniques like screenprinting, which allowed for serial reproduction and did away with painterly brushstrokes, Warhol gained fame with now-iconic images of Campbell’s soup cans and celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe. Warhol’s notoriety grew through his experimental filmmaking, Interview magazine, portrait commissions for the rich and famous, and works exploring the U.S. obsession with consumerism and death. Known for his deadpan witticisms, eccentric creative community, and unapologetic embrace of art’s commercial potential, Warhol strategically positioned himself and his art in ways that attracted acclaim and rejection. Warhol both flaunted and obscured his sexuality and his religion—dualities that are explored in Revelation.
One month after the debut of his Last Supper series (on view in the final gallery), Warhol died in New York City on February 22, 1987, from complications following surgery.
Warhol was Byzantine Catholic: What Does that Mean?
The term “Catholic” refers to many different Christian churches and ecclesiastical communities. There are twenty-four autonomous Catholic churches: one Western (Roman) Catholic Church and twenty-three Eastern Catholic churches, including the Byzantine Catholic Church.
During his childhood, Warhol attended St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. The church follows Eastern traditions such as the veneration of icons, the Julian calendar (Christmas is observed on January 7), and the celebration of Divine Liturgy, which involves the consecration of bread and wine, chanting, and a lavish use of incense.
St. John Chrysostom upheld practices specific to the Carpatho-Rusyn people of Eastern Europe and sustained a close ethnic community through ritual. Liturgies were celebrated in the Rusyn variant of the Church Slavonic language, music was chanted without the accompaniment of instruments, and holiday rituals were derived from Rusyn folk traditions such as pysanky, a style of Easter egg decoration.
In New York City, Warhol frequented three churches: St. Vincent Ferrer Roman Catholic Church in the Lenox Hill neighborhood; St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Byzantine Slavonic Rite in Gramercy Park; and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (Episcopal) in Morningside Heights. Nevertheless, Warhol remained a Byzantine Catholic and was given a traditional Byzantine Catholic funeral in Pittsburgh, where he was laid to rest alongside his parents.
I. Immigrant Roots and Religion
Warhol’s parents, Andrej (1886–1942) and Julia Warhola (1891–1972), immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century from present-day Slovakia. They lived in Pittsburgh’s Ruska Dolina neighborhood, populated by Rusyn immigrants, struggling financially yet retaining their language and cultural traditions, in part due to the local Byzantine Catholic church. Throughout childhood, Warhol accompanied his mother to four services every weekend, absorbing the church’s icons and rituals.
Raising a family during the Great Depression, Warhol’s parents nevertheless embraced young Andy’s creativity, spending money hard earned in factory and domestic work to purchase a camera and a projector for the budding artist. When Warhol was bedbound with Sydenham’s chorea, a neurological disorder that impacted his body and mind, his mother encouraged his development as an artist with art supplies and films.
After moving to New York, Warhol shortened his last name and concealed his immigrant and working-class roots. A visible, openly gay fixture in the city’s cultural landscape, Warhol never abandoned the cultural and religious habits of Ruska Dolina, sustained by his mother, who lived with him for nearly two decades. Warhol visited church regularly, financed his nephew’s studies for the priesthood, served meals to homeless people, and amassed a trove of religious objects and ephemera, some of which is on view in the exhibition.
II. Madonna and Magdalen: Warhol and Women
Drawing on the tradition of religious iconographers, Warhol elevated certain women to iconic status, revealing his public and private adoration. Half of Warhol’s Factory “Superstars” were women, and many were also lapsed Catholics, as seen in the 1966 film TheChelsea Girls (on view in the nearby rotunda gallery).
Unlike the subjects of his commissioned portraits, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Julia Warhola did not sit for photo shoots with the artist. Instead, Warhol transformed images of Kennedy in mourning and of Monroe and Julia after their deaths. Just as Catholic art makes use of metaphor and allegory, Warhol transformed the lives of real women into metaphors for tragic beauty and the beauty of tragedy. In some ways, Kennedy and Monroe become opposing forces, reinforcing rigid biblical views of womanhood as well as conventional beauty norms.
Warhol’s images of women are further complicated by the growing feminist legacy of Valerie Solanas, who attempted to assassinate Warhol in 1968, gravely injuring him and changing his attitude toward public life, art-making, and faith. Warhol’s medical resurrection, after he was briefly declared dead by physicians, marked a turning point in his career.
In 1968, artist Valerie Solanas rode the elevator to the studio and shot Warhol, rupturing seven organs and nearly killing him. Solanas was on Warhol’s outer circle and had accused him of losing or stealing the script to her play Up Your Ass (which turned up years later). Warhol’s life changed radically: the open-door come-as-you-are policy of studio life ended abruptly; he wore medical corsets for the rest of his life; and he privately kept his promise to God to attend church weekly.
Solanas’s infamy eclipses her radical feminist legacy. On view in this case are typewritten drafts and letters that trace the development of her SCUM Manifesto as well as her hostility toward Warhol. Self-published in 1967, the manifesto, named after the “Society for Cutting Up Men,” calls to right the wrongs of a sexist society by overthrowing the government, eliminating money and work, and ending the male sex. Obviously incendiary, the work seethes with rage and ultimately seeks to invert the gendered hierarchy of a world in which women are systemically killed, assaulted, and raped or silenced and sidelined—realities the queer, Catholic Solanas knew well from her abusive childhood, teenage pregnancy, and years in unstable housing, struggling to be valued in a patriarchal world.
Candy Darling was a Warhol “Superstar,” actor, and transgender icon. Darling was a Factory regular, and her vampy glamour graced Warhol’s films Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971) as well as stage plays and independent films. For years, Warhol and Darling were close friends, often attending parties together. Darling wrote to Warhol on her deathbed, “Unfortunately before my death I had no desire left for life. . . .I am just so bored by everything. You might say bored to death. Did you know I couldn’t last. I always knew it.” She died from lymphoma at age twenty-nine.
Warhol’s friendships and collaborations with transgender and gender-nonconforming people reflected the vibrancy these communities brought to New York culture. Even Darling, however, was underpaid by Warhol. In a 1975 commissioned series with the experience-effacing title Ladies and Gentlemen (not on view), Warhol depicted unnamed Black and Latinx gender-nonconforming sitters by overlaying intense, reductive swaths of dark paint. Like Darling, these sitters were barely compensated.
Through a New York agency called Famous Faces, Warhol and photographer Christopher Makos hired breastfeeding models and their children for a project titled Modern Madonnas. While Warhol intended the series to be a modern interpretation of Mary holding the Christ child, he became disenchanted with the subject, stating: “I just know this series is going to be a problem. It’s just too strange a thing, mothers and babies and breastfeeding.”
Perhaps the sexualized dimension of the models’ conventional beauty complicated the reference to the chaste Virgin; more likely, the stigma around breastfeeding led Warhol to abandon the series. Although Warhol made about thirty drawings based on the photographs, he did not produce any prints or paintings.
III. The Renaissance Spirit
Grounded in representations of biblical narratives and steeped in Catholic ideology, Italian Renaissance artists invented new forms of expression. The Renaissance is often upheld by white institutions as the pinnacle of Western civilization, forming a narrative of art history that emphasizes the individual male genius, with Leonardo da Vinci as a vaunted example of the “Renaissance man.” Although Warhol’s transgressive work challenged the idolization of the artist’s hand, he is often heralded as a twentieth-century heir to this archetype. Early in his commercial career, Warhol was ironically referred to as the “Leonardo da Vinci of shoes” for his unmistakable and influential advertisement art.
Using groundbreaking technologies and radical perspectives, Leonardo earned international fame by establishing a system of production and patronage on a grand scale. Warhol admired and emulated the multifaceted, multimedia scope of Leonardo’s work, which he revisited throughout his life. Like Leonardo, Warhol worked in many disciplines—commercial illustration, photography, movies, publishing, and painting—and with diverse techniques. And just as Renaissance artists reconfigured classical Greco-Roman art, Warhol revived the work of Leonardo and translated centuries-old subjects into a Pop context. Leonardo’s Annunciation, Last Supper, Madonna Litta, and Mona Lisa inspired Warhol to create his own renditions, exploring and exploding their iconic, traditional themes.
IV. The Catholic Body
Catholic visual culture places a strong emphasis on the human form. From the motherly embrace of the Virgin to the wounded flesh of Christ on the cross, sacred bodies pervade Catholic homes and worship spaces in the form of artwork and ritual objects, often enhanced by sensory experiences such as singing and incense, particularly in the Byzantine Catholic tradition. Christ’s role as the “Word made flesh” intertwines the Catholic faith with corporeality, thereby making the body a portal through which believers can approach God.
The body—and his body—fascinated Warhol, who was obsessed with health and wellness, particularly following the 1968 attempt on his life and during the early years of the AIDS crisis. From the subtleties of clasped hands to the worship of the male nude and a bold use of bodily fluids, Warhol often entangled his corporeal same-sex desires with Catholic imagery, in the face of the church’s condemnation of homosexuality. He wielded his characteristic detachment—as seen in his brief and seemingly superficial commentary and his literally mechanical approach to art—as a shield. In this way, Warhol struck a balance between hiding and flaunting his sexuality and his religious beliefs.
Visit to the Vatican
According to some accounts, Warhol had desperately wanted to paint a pope since the early 1960s. He saw Pope Paul VI’s entourage through the window of The Factory during the whirlwind fourteen-hour papal visit to New York City on October 4, 1965. Warhol called it “the most Pop public appearance tour of the sixties.”
On April 2, 1980, Warhol and his manager, Fred Hughes, met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. Although they expected a private audience, the pair found themselves among a throng of five thousand people waiting to see the pontiff. Warhol waited three hours before finally shaking the pope’s hand and snapping a few photographs. John Paul II was seen as particularly charismatic. Hailing from Poland, he was the first non-Italian pope in centuries, and he prioritized repairing relations with Judaism, Islam, and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
V. The Last Supper
Through repetition and appropriation, Warhol blurred the boundaries between high and low art. He applied these approaches to sacred subjects that themselves were often based on commercially mass-produced reproductions. Exceeding the scope of a 1984 commission by Alexander Iolas, Warhol’s Last Supper series consists of more than one hundred works depicting aspects of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic mural, painted from 1495 to 1498 in the dining hall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan, Italy. One month before Warhol’s death, twenty-two of his Last Supper works were exhibited across the street from Leonardo’s mural.
On view together in this exhibition for the first time are Warhol’s source materials for the Last Supper screenprints, including the reproduction of a print (1874) by German artist Rudolf Stang that recalls the print that hung in his childhood home. Hand-painted versions draw their imagery directly from a more schematic reproduction that appeared in the Cyclopedia of Painters and Paintings first published in 1885. Reproducing an already widely interpreted image, Warhol upended its traditional form using patterning, repetition, isolating gestures and moments, and vivid colors in large-scale canvases that rival the size of Leonardo’s mural.
The theme of death occurred in Warhol’s compositions from the early 1960s onward, appearing in both metaphorical and explicit images. While the Death and Disaster series and the Skull paintings provide blunt reminders of death’s constant presence in life, Warhol also explored the theme allegorically through works depicting the setting sun and shadows, both offering sublime examples of the transition from light to dark. Always drawn to high-contrast imagery, Warhol was also interested in the illusory quality of shadows and their enigmatic, contemplative, and spiritual dimensions. This notion is complicated by Warhol’s diary descriptions of the shadowy source imagery coming from the nude male form.
VII. Material World: What We Worship
One of Warhol’s enduring legacies is his skill in revealing, without much artistic intercession, the enduring icons, obsessions, and compulsions of American society. From translating branded home goods into Pop-inflected contemporary relics, to adoration of the rich and famous—first by the media and later by commission—to paintings literally glorifying the dollar, Warhol canonized consumerism and commercialism in his art and life, embodying American capitalism.
Yet Warhol’s renown as a coolly disengaged observer of the twentieth century is at odds with some of the subjects he chose, which exposed the current of death and violence that exists simultaneously with the U.S. myth of upward mobility through purchasing power. Paintings presenting images of police violence against peaceful protesters during the 1963 Civil Rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama, and empty electric chairs used in state executions reveal authority and violence as forms of social control that are arguably as powerful as advertisements. The series Guns, Knives, and Crosses and painted reproductions of evangelizing advertisements show religion and faith intermingling with life’s anxieties and threats. In these and other ways, Warhol explored the desires, hopes, and prayers of modern life.
May 6, 2021
Andy Warhol is one of the most celebrated and recognizable artists of all time, but until now the impact of his Catholic upbringing on his life and work has been a lesser known facet of his widely studied career. Andy Warhol: Revelation explores the artist’s lifelong relationship with his faith, which inspired images that appeared frequently and overtly as part of his artistic practice. Warhol played with styles and symbolism from Eastern and Western Catholic art history, carefully reframing them within the context of Pop art and culture in his iconic portraits of celebrities, appropriated Renaissance masterpieces, and works that engage with questions of violence and power. Throughout his life, Warhol continued to practice his faith while living unapologetically as an out gay man, along with his circle of social outcasts known for their creative and eccentric lifestyles, long before the mainstream LGBTQ+ liberation movement.
The exhibition is organized by the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, and curated by José Carlos Diaz, Chief Curator. The Brooklyn presentation is organized by Carmen Hermo, Associate Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum. The Museum is the final destination for the exhibit ion, which originated at the Andy Warhol Museum and later traveled to the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. The Brooklyn presentation includes more than thirty additional items, including loans from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Rhode Island School of Design, Baltimore Museum of Art, and Paul Warhola Family Collection as well as expanded selections from the Andy Warhol Museum collection such as Warhol’s iconic 1966 film The Chelsea Girls.
“Warhol both flaunted and obscured his religion and his sexuality, and these dualities are explored in Revelation along with the push and pull between sincerity and superficiality, revealing and hiding, traditional and avant-garde,” says Hermo. “This exhibition gives viewers an opportunity to unpack some of those poignant and very human contradictions that functioned as one of the drivers of his art production.”
Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh to a devout family who worshiped in the Byzantine Catholic Church tradition, one of twenty three Eastern Catholic Churches. Warhol grew up attending weekly services with his mother, Julia, who had immigrated to the United States with her husband from present day Slovakia in the early twentieth century. In the Warhola family’s Carpatho-Rusyn neighborhood of Ruska Dolina in Pittsburgh, a working class immigrant enclave, life revolved around the church community, and the young artist was deeply impacted by this environment. Warhol continued to attend church in New York City, praying in Eastern, Roman, and Anglican Catholic spaces. Even after legendary parties at his studio, the Silver Factory, Warhol returned to the quiet home he shared with his mother, who prayed with him every morning before he left for another day of prolific, history making work.
In an era that favored Abstract Expressionism, Warhol adopted an accessible visual language. He gained fame and notoriety for elevating mundane images from mass media to high art, using avant-garde approaches to examine traditional themes of power, desire, and the fragility of life. Revelation is organized by themes such as the role and representation of women, Renaissance themes and production models, the Catholic body and corporeality, family and diasporic traditions and beliefs, and imitations and duplications of Christ. His monumental crosses, appropriations of Western masterpieces, and depictions of Christ directly reference biblical stories, but Warhol also created works encoded with depictions of spirituality and others that entangled queer desire with Catholic imagery. Newly discovered items such as the original popular encyclopedia source for his epic Last Supper series and ephemera from his Baptism to his audience with the pope to his funerals in New York and Pittsburgh provide an intimate look at Warhol’s creative process. Obscure works such as an unfinished film reel from 1967 depicting the setting sun, commissioned by the de Menil family and funded by the Roman Catholic Church; late masterpieces like the pink Last Supper (1986); religious objects and ephemera; and drawings created by Warhol’s mother during the two decades she lived with her son in New York City, offer a nuanced perspective on the artist.
Andy Warhol: Revelation is organized by the Andy Warhol Museum and curated by José Carlos Diaz, Chief Curator. The Brooklyn presentation is organized by Carmen Hermo, Associate Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.