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July 21, 2008

Just Pop Art? Or Religious Iconography?

Warhol_large "He created the biggest series of religious works of any American artist,” said Professor Jane Daggett Dillenberger of the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley. “To my certain knowledge,” said one friend of this artist, “he was responsible for at least one conversion. He took considerable pride in financing his nephew’s studies for the priesthood. And he regularly helped out at a shelter serving meals to the homeless and hungry.” This artist attended church almost daily, kept a devotional by his bedside, and prayed everyday with his mother, a devout Byzantine Catholic.

So, who was this artist? Probably not the late Andy Warhol with whom you’re familiar.

This isn’t news, actually. In the late nineties Dr. Dillenger discovered Warhol’s more than one hundred renditions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. And references to his faith have been mentioned under the radar. But when we think of Warhol today, we remember his “pop art”—like the Coke bottles and Campbell’s soup cans—not to mention his open homosexuality and his workshop that attracted celebrities and misfits in the 1960s.

Some have said his soup can paintings are just a comment on a consumer culture or that Warhol was saying there are no special standards of what art is.

And that may be, but art historian James Romaine offers another perspective. Though Dillenger referred to Warhol’s Last Supper pieces when she referred to his prolific religious works, those soup cans also fit into the category. “Warhol admitted,” Romaine writes, “that one reason he was attracted to the imagery of Campbell’s soup was that he had eaten Campbell’s soup nearly every day as a boy … growing up in a poor immigrant family. … Campbell’s soup probably offered a reassuring sense of belonging.” And he ate that soup under a reproduction of Last Supper on his kitchen wall.

And the Coca-Cola bottles? “Coke is Coke,” said Warhol, “and no matter how rich you are you can’t get a better one than the one the homeless woman on the corner is drinking”—the equality of all humanity.

This imagery reminds us of the import of the material. After all, Christ used the most common of items—bread and wine—to express a holy and eternal truth: His redemption of mankind. Furthermore, in using material things, artists restore creation, reclaiming it for God’s kingdom.

These ideas are in line with how younger evangelicals approach art. In his book The Younger Evangelicals, Robert Webber of Wheaton College writes, “Younger evangelicals are returning to a much greater appreciation and use of the classical arts … [that] corresponds to the return of classical Christian thought.” They understand art is more than “mere illustration.” For them, art is “eschatological.” It witnesses “to the ultimate redemption of all things as set forth by Isaiah’s vision of the new creation.”

In his work Last Supper (Dove), Warhol used everyday supermarket items in the scene with Jesus. Romaine says this demonstrated that modern life and faith are neither separate nor contradictory.

So while Warhol privatized his faith, his art betrayed a possible secret.

Again, it goes to show, you never know.

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