From Campbell’s soup cans to Coca-Cola bottles, most Americans are familiar with the commonplace, consumerist subjects of the 20th century pop artist Andy Warhol. He recreated images of everyday items and household celebrities, giving his work a layer of superficiality and materialism. Amidst his supposed obsession with fame and celebrities, Warhol was raised, and remained throughout his life, a devout Byzantine Rite Catholic. Not only was his faith a part of his personal life, but its rich religious iconography also influenced his art.
Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola, the son of first-generation immigrant parents who moved to Pennsylvania from the small village of Mikova, in present-day Slovakia. Although he was born in the United States, Warhol’s upbringing was anything but all-American. His family lived in what was known as the Ruska Dolina, the Ruthenian area of Pittsburgh, surrounded by fellow Eastern European immigrant families. The Warhola family attended weekly Mass at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, where the young Andrew sat before the image-filled iconostasis, the screen composed of religious icons that separates the altar from the nave in a Byzantine Rite Catholic church.
Like the Greek Orthodox tradition, religious icons are essential in the Byzantine Rite faith. They are not merely representations of saints and holy people, but are also a mediation between the believer and the divine realm, as much a part of revelation as the written word of God. Thus, the first art Andy Warhol encountered was most likely religious icons, both in church and in his family’s home.
While Warhol kept his faith and his public life separate, the influence of religious iconography on Warhol can be seen in his well-known silkscreened images of celebrities and consumerist objects.
Religious icons are distinct in their visual language; the depiction of holy people in iconographic paintings is usually a fairly two-dimensional image, focusing on lines and planes of solid colors rather than rendering the image to look three-dimensional. Icons also have a solid, monochromatic background, which is usually gold, symbolizing the holy person’s existence in heaven.
Warhol approached the subject matter of his work in a similar way by using commonplace images found in advertisements and well-known celebrity pictures from newspapers. The influence of the two-dimensionality and monochromatic background in icons can be seen in many of Warhol’s silkscreened works, in which he too uses flat planes of solid colors and black outlines to depict objects and people.
“Gold Marilyn” most directly shows this influence. Made shortly after Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, Warhol depicted the famed star’s face in the center of a flat, golden plane, alluding to the non-earthly realm in which religious saints also reside in iconography.
Through these references to the Byzantine iconography, Warhol created images of secular saints: the people and icons that Americans today too often look to for inspiration in our increasingly materialistic world. His art encourages us to rethink what people hold sacred, and challenges ideas of what constitutes a true contemporary icon.