In February of 2020, Chief Curator José Carlos Diaz and I held a gallery conversation and tour of the Revelation exhibition at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. As a specialist on miracle working images in the early modern period, I gained a new appreciation for Warhol’s artistic practice while preparing for this conversation and during the event itself. Inspired by this show and eager to continue our conversation, I am sharing my reflections on a handful of objects that stirred connections with my own research area.
Below is a reflection on a sampling of the rich subjects I saw present in the exhibition.
Coincidence or Criticism
The Sistine Madonna is arguably best known for two characters that have, since at least the nineteenth century, been isolated and reproduced on popular items, from throw pillows to mint containers. The two cherubs at the bottom of the original painting have been replaced with another infant body, the body of Christ highlighted in bright pink.
This is enough of an art historical reference, with particular consumeristic reference, but it is not alone in Warhol’s reinterpretation of this famous artwork.
The figure on the viewer’s left is Pope Sixtus, which was painted to resemble the current pope (of Raphel’s time) and patron of the original work, Pope Julius II. Julius II was pope from 1503-1513 (the eve of the Protestant Reformation), and was criticized after his death by Protestants for his selling of indulgences. The elongated papal tiara, which in Raphael’s work sits at the pope’s feet, is omitted in Warhol’s version. Instead, the $6.99 (not a stretch to be a reference to the number of the beast) is placed on top of the pope’s head and electric with color. Whether or not this was an intentional reference to early modern critics of salvation for sale from Catholicism’s past, the potential implications are striking. There are many layers of knowledge required for such a reading. That the Sistine Madonna contains two cherubs usually seen out of context, that the third century pope painted was rendered to look like the patron of the work, and that the patron was the pope that drew intense criticism for the selling of time off of purgatory.
The Role of Gold
Warhol flips the golden background of icons and other Christian panel paintings. This renders the ground solid as the heavenly body becomes less stable and more visibly precious. Golden flattens images, but it also references the heavenly, its surface becomes alive with movement by flickering candlelight or the motion of the viewer. Both refined and austere, a gold-leafed surface does not allow for subtle modeling with pigment, but it also resists any desire to alter its surface appearance- covering gold obscures what makes it special.
Religious Image or Art Historical Icon:
It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to tell which of Warhol’s references to popular Renaissance artworks are intentionally “religious”. The Western European canon of Renaissance art is full of Christian imagery, but this type of potential ambiguity seems to suit Warhol.
This is particularly true in the Details of Renaissance Paintings.
Warhol has pulled this detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation, a painting which is often pointed to as early evidence of the young Leonardo’s attention to observing nature and the atmospheric perspective (which causes distant objects to fade from view). Warhol takes the haziest portion of the image, the mountain and shoreline in the background, and completely flattens the very depth for which the painting is known. It is a detail that is instantly recognizable to art historians trained on the canonical images, but Warhol’s rendering removes almost all of the features that make it broadly recognizable. The vibrantly hued and multicolored line that traces the contours of each form redirects the viewer interest back to line from shadow.
Copies on Copies:
Finally, Warhol’s treatment of the Last Supper is a reminder of the power of copies. Warhol created silkscreen prints of Leonardo da Vinci’s well known painting of the Last Supper. Warhol could have created it using a photograph of the original work, but he instead used a reproduction of a reproduction of the original. The source material for Warhol’s silkscreen series was a reproduction of the Last Supper, by the German printmaker Rudolf Stang (1831-1927). This selection by Warhol could be because the image of Stang’s was better suited to the print medium, that it was able to keep figures more “readable” than the current state of the original work of da Vinci, which has lost some of its visual clarity over the past five hundred years. Alternately, this reliance on a copy of the original, even as rendered through human draftsmanship (rather than human use of mechanical means like photography), is a fitting tribute to the power of replication to multiply the effect of a single object.
Most people who know of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper will have experienced it through its copies, rather than through a personal experience with the original painted surface. The power of multiples allows for sustained, repetitive contact that strengthens connections with an object that would otherwise remain inaccessible. When Warhol prints this image, he repeats and remixes the components of the work, which in turn prompts a reassessment by the viewer. It taps into the comparative work that many may be familiar with, the puzzle of what is different between two of the “same” images. What is the same? What makes these images, printed by the same process, look dissimilar? The curiosity provoked by duplication is one of many visual moves that opens up topics of conversation and connection.
Whether an intellectual prompt or a reference to religion, Warhol’s engagement in the practice of copying is compelling. His images resist clear categorization, but that tension and potential of discovery is part of what makes his artwork and the Revelation exhibition so engaging. Here’s to more conversations across specialties!
Special thanks to Rebecca Giordano, who organized and planned this event.