‘Secret piety’: new show reveals Andy Warhol’s Catholic roots

Known for his wild parties and proud queerness, he went to church, met the pope and prayed daily with his mother

He is celebrated for his Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup prints, legendary parties, proud queerness and worship of celebrity.

But Andy Warhol was raised by a devout Catholic mother with whom he prayed daily throughout the two decades in which they shared a New York home. The wild prince of pop art went to church, met the pope and financed his nephew’s studies to become a priest.

“Warhol both flaunted and obscured his religion and his sexuality,” said Carmen Hermo, the organiser of Andy Warhol: Revelation, opening at the Brooklyn Museum next month. The exhibition’s focus on Warhol’s faith in relation to his art “provides an opportunity to unpack the poignant and very human contradictions that functioned as one of the drivers of his art production”.

Warhol, born into a working-class immigrant family, attended St John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic church in Pittsburgh throughout his childhood. “He often went to four lengthy services over a weekend, and spent a lot of time staring at religious icons. They were a progenitor of his hundreds of images of Marilyn Monroe, dozens of Jackie O, the icons of American culture and celebrity,” said Hermo.

In New York, Warhol quickly became a cult figure on the exploding pop art scene and avidly chronicled his own life through audio, photography and video decades before social media was invented.

“By 1968, he was the Warhol that many people today know and love, at the centre of an incredible scene of rock’n’roll, drug-using misfits, and with an ‘everybody is welcome’ approach to art world socialisation,” said Hermo.

The anchor of his life was his mother, Julia – also an artist, devoutly religious and a powerful influence – to whom he returned after wild parties at his silver-painted studio, the Factory. Her drawings of angels are included in the exhibition.

In 1968, Warhol had a near-death experience when he was shot in his studio by Valerie Solanas. “For the rest of his life, he was affected physically, in pain, wearing medical corsets daily – but also spiritually, by many accounts,” said Hermo. The artist increased his visits to church, served meals to homeless people and met Pope John Paul II in 1980.

In a eulogy after Warhol’s death in 1987, the art historian John Richardson said his spiritual side was the key to his psyche. “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,” he said.

The exhibition includes a figurine of Jesus painted by Warhol as a child, a 1950s sketchbook open at a sensual line drawing of a male foot surrounded by sacred heart votives, and numerous works from his series based on Leonardo da Vinci’s mural The Last Supper, a print of which hung in Warhol’s childhood home. His epic 1966 film The Chelsea Girls, which contains a repeated confessional motif, will be screened twice a day.

Warhol’s relationship with his faith was inevitably complicated by his sexuality, said Hermo. “There are paintings that bring a bodybuilder’s form into the loving arms of Christ. You see the two opposing forces in one person. Sometimes it was very overt, sometimes it was very metaphorical.”

The title of the show – first curated by José Carlos Diaz at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh before the pandemic – “says it all,” said Hermo. “It is a revelation: an under-known aspect of Warhol. There are so many themes the public has grown to love about Warhol – the rise of celebrity culture, the repetition of icons of consumerism, the death and disaster series. But this shows a thread between all these works: his art through the lens of Catholicism.”


Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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