A Look at Andy Warhol's Spiritual Side
Book Examines Effect Of Artist's Religious Life on His Work
By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 1998; Page C07
One of the most provocative books of the fall publishing season explores
the private religious life of artist Andy Warhol and its impact on the
painter's prolific output, especially the overtly religious works of his last
Warhol's paintings were "so huge, so beautiful, and to try to convince
people of their religious characteristics and depth is a big thing to do," Jane
Daggett Dillenberger, author of "The Religious Art of Andy Warhol," said
in an interview. "I hope people will look and reconsider with new eyes."
Dillenberger, an art historian who teaches at the Graduate Theological
Union in Berkeley, Calif., said that Warhol has been "caught" in the role of
pop artist and is remembered mostly for his Campbell Soup cans,
Coca-Cola bottles and portraits of such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe,
Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy and Mick Jagger.
She said she shared this limited view until she saw a photograph of
Warhol's studio, published in Vanity Fair after his death in 1987 at age 58.
Covering one wall was a large, unfinished painting Warhol did of Jesus and
the apostles John and James, based on Leonardo da Vinci's "Last
"The photograph was transfixing for me," she writes in her book, scheduled
for publication in November (Continuum, $39.95). "I knew at once that
Warhol must have done other such paintings. What were they like, and
where were they? Warhol, the pop artist, the creator of religious art? How
What Dillenberger learned, and what she said the art world is slowly
beginning to accept, is that Warhol -- a homosexual who frequented
Studio 54 and whose workshop, the Factory, attracted an array of misfits
and celebrities -- was a devoutly religious person.
Art historian John Richardson, in his eulogy at a memorial Mass at St.
Patrick's Cathedral in New York, called Warhol's spiritual side, known
only to his closest friends, "the key to the artist's psyche."
The man often called the Pope of Pop attended Mass several times a
week, worked in a soup kitchen, kept a crucifix and devotional book on
his bedside table and prayed daily with his mother, a devout Byzantine
Catholic who lived with him until her death in 1972.
He never went to confession but was "bonding with a God and a Christ
above and beyond the church," the pastor of St. Vincent Frerer, the
Catholic church near Warhol's Manhattan town house, told Dillenberger in
Warhol produced more than 100 drawings and paintings -- at least 30 on
massive canvases -- based on the "Last Supper." In his last public
appearance, a month before his death, he attended an exhibition of 20 da
In some of the works produced during his "Last Supper" cycle, Warhol
superimposed, in pop art fashion, such modern icons as price tags and the
commercial logos of Dove soap and General Electric light bulbs.
Others, such as "Sixty Last Suppers," he produced as small repetitive
images reminiscent of the multiple images on an iconostasis, or screen, in
front of the altar in a Byzantine church. And in some, such as the unfinished
studio painting, he cropped out da Vinci's background details and focused
on the figures, making them larger than life.
Dillenberger discovered the existence of these paintings, many of them in
private collections in Europe, through "sleuthing." She also had help from
the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York and the
Andy Warhol Museum, which opened in 1994 in Pittsburgh, the artist's
home town. The Warhol Museum owns a 33-foot "Last Supper" on a pink
polymer background. The Baltimore Museum of Art has a 25-foot version
on yellow in its Warhol collection, the second largest after the Warhol
These paintings showed the influence of religion on Warhol, she said. In the
last decade of his life, the artist also produced his elusive "Shadow" series
-- somber, reflective paintings that Dillenberger compares to those in the
Mark Rothko Chapel in Houston. And he painted scarlet crosses,
luminescent Easter eggs, quirky skeletons and skulls and offered revisionist
twists on religious themes in works by Raphael and other Renaissance
Dillenberger believes that Warhol's Czechoslovakian-Byzantine heritage is
evident not only in his later paintings, where his "secret but deeply religious
nature flowed freely," but also throughout his artistic career.
The paintings of Monroe, for example, become more "religious" as one
understands Warhol's preoccupation with death and questions about the
afterlife, said Dillenberger, who throughout a long career has taught mostly
In one of the most famous images, Monroe's face appears on a gold
background. That doesn't mean she made lots of money, Dillenberger said.
In Byzantine paintings and icons, a "gold background is a symbol of
"Here is this fragile, smiling face all made up but centered in a sea of gold,"
resembling the icons of the saints, she said. "He was a star, and he was in
love with a star. But the way he represented her somehow mysteriously
touches upon the eternal."