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LGBTQ stories: Andy Warhol's unlikely spirituality

 Warhol's take on Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" on display at the Brooklyn Museum’s “Andy Warhol: Revelation” exhibit.
Davis Dunavin
Warhol's take on Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" on display at the Brooklyn Museum’s “Andy Warhol: Revelation” exhibit.

One of America’s most beloved artists kept a secret. Something that may have shocked his friends and colleagues. Andy Warhol — pop artist and gay icon — was also a lifelong Catholic who went to mass regularly at a church in New York City’s Upper East Side.

Warhol grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His family were Slovakian immigrants — their original name was Warhola. And every week, his mother took him to a Byzantine Catholic Church.

“Andy grew up in a religious and hardworking household, and I think that applies to his career and adult life,” said Jose Diaz, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Diaz came to New York last year to put together an exhibition on Warhol’s spiritual life at the Brooklyn Museum — with curator Carmen Hermo. Carmen walks me through a room in the museum full of Warhol trinkets.

“There are sweet works that he made as a child, gorgeous little painted Jesus statue that he made at ten years old,” Hermo said. “As a student at Carnegie tech, reproducing images of the family crucifix … There are tiny sweet ephemera items of the Warhola family.”

Like saint cards, the family prayer book and his certificate of baptism. Warhol moved from Pittsburgh to New York in 1949. He quickly made a name for himself with those big iconic artworks that are still legendary — Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe.

He hung out with celebrities like Truman Capote and Liza Minnelli. He had an entourage of artists and hipsters. His public image was an aloof guru with his finger on the pulse of both avant-garde and pop culture. No one was ever sure when he was serious.

Warhol was also gay, and a lot of his work dealt with his sexuality. Jose Diaz, the Pittsburgh art curator, shows me a painting of a muscular bodybuilder with his arms crossed over his chest. But looming over this bodybuilder is a stenciled picture of Jesus, almost like he’s watching down on the bodybuilder.

“That sort of tender, westernized, handsome version of Jesus Christ,” Diaz said.

Warhol rarely explained his art. Curators don’t know what he meant by “body.”

“So is it the body of heaven?” Diaz said. “Is it a physical body, a body of desire?”

Warhols take on Leonardo Da Vinci's Annunciation.JPG
Davis Dunavin
Warhol's take on Leonardo Da Vinci's "Annunciation" on display at the Brooklyn Museum’s “Andy Warhol: Revelation” exhibit.

But this wasn’t his only work to feature Jesus and other important Christian figures. The exhibition also features Warhol’s massive take on Da Vinci’s "Last Supper" — in bright pink and yellow. And another take on Da Vinci’s "Annunciation", the moment the Virgin Mary learns she will give birth to Jesus. Warhol’s image focuses on the hands of Mary and the angel Gabriel.

Critics didn’t know what to make of these religious works — were they for shock value or were they sincere? He did have what might be described as a religious epiphany in 1968. A feminist writer named Valerie Solanas came to Warhol’s studio to try to sell him a movie script — and she shot him. Curator Carmen Hermo said Warhol almost didn’t survive.

“There are accounts that he promised to God on his deathbed,” Hermo said. “He said, if I make it through this, God…”

After that, he went to church every Sunday, his closest friends said — maybe every day, depending on whom you ask.

“In his diary, he does often note popping into church,” Hermo said. “He didn’t necessarily attend a full mass, whether because he’s such a celebrity, or because — I think this is a very human reality — someone who’s raised Catholic, if you are queer, if you are breaking the rules of your religion - you’re not meant to take communion.”

Warhol not only attended church regularly, he volunteered at a church-run soup kitchen — and spent Christmas and Thanksgivings there with the homeless. He traveled to Vatican City to see Pope John Paul II. And he financed his nephew’s studies to become a priest.

Curator Carmen Hermo said Warhol’s secret religious life was revealed to the public after his death in 1987.

“At his star-studded funeral in New York, where 2000 people attended, they had NYPD taking care of things, limousines going down 5th Avenue, the art historian John Richardson reveals this kind of core, what he called the key to the artist’s psyche, is his Catholicism and spirituality,” she said

The Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York, one church Andy Warhol attended.
Davis Dunavin
The Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York, one church Andy Warhol attended.

Richardson claimed in his eulogy that religion was always in Warhol’s thoughts, even if it didn’t surface a lot in his work. That was news to most of Warhol’s friends, according to an essay Richardson wrote in 2001.

“To believe the envious Truman Capote, Andy was a Sphinx without a secret,” Richardson wrote. “In fact, he did have a secret, one that he kept dark from all but his closest friends: he was exceedingly devout. It was not soppy social consciousness or guilt that prompted Andy's good works; it was atavism as personified by his adored and adoring mother, the pious Julia.”

The priest at St. Vincent’s later gave interviews to Warhol’s biographers. He confirmed Warhol didn’t take Communion. And he added the artist’s lifestyle was “absolutely irreconcilable” with Catholic moral doctrine.

Curator Jose Diaz said that’s part of what makes him so fascinating.

“For me, Warhol is a very ambiguous figure,” Diaz said. “He’s a creature of transformation. But what makes it hard for us is that he contradicts himself … We don’t know how “saintly” he was, and he certainly was a sinner … but he was a “good religious boy.”

And if that seems like an impossible contradiction, welcome to the world of Andy Warhol.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.