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Art and Images in Psychiatry
April 2014

The Last Supper (Dove): Andy Warhol

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(4):350-351. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.2723

I’d like to recall a side of [Andy Warhol’s] character that he hid from all but his closest friends: his spiritual side…it’s the key to the artist’s psyche.

John Richardson, eulogy for Andy Warhol, April 1, 19871(p5)

I’d prefer to remain a mystery. I never like to give my background and, anyway, I make it all different all the time I’m asked.

Andy Warhol2(p1)

Andy Warhol’s final achievement, his Last Supper series, used Pop Art to reanimate Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century sacred mural located in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie Dominican Church in Milan, Italy. Commissioned by his friend the art dealer Alexandre Iolas, Warhol prepared more than 40 versions, both silk-screened and hand-painted, of the Last Supper. Among these, 10 of the silk-screened ones and 12 collages were displayed at an exhibit that opened in Milan on January 22, 1987, and closed on March 21, 1987.1,3 Some were colored or made on camouflage backgrounds, and others show details of Jesus with overlapping colored rectangles. They were displayed on the walls of the Palazzo delle Stelline gallery, a former convent, located only 50 m from Leonardo’s original mural that was being cleaned at the time of the exhibit.

Overall, more than 30 000 people viewed the exhibit. At what proved to be his final public appearance, Warhol became ill in Milan with recurrent gallbladder disease. He was hospitalized and underwent a cholecystectomy shortly after returning to New York; unfortunately, he died on February 22 during the night following his surgery.1

His funeral took place on April 1, 1987, and many took note that it was April Fool’s Day. Warhol never wished to be taken seriously; he always kept his public guessing, famously saying: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There is nothing behind it.”3(p23) However, in their memorials, his friends insisted that his public persona, his apparent obsession with money, fame, and glamor, was disingenuous. Their eulogies revealed that there was something more behind Warhol’s public persona, his secret piety (first epigraph).3 During his lifetime, he preferred to remain a mystery (second epigraph), but his closest friends were well aware of his regular church attendance and how he helped out at a shelter (serving food to homeless people during holidays).

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), an immigrant from what is now Slovakia, was born into the Byzantine Catholic Church and was a devout Catholic who regularly attended church at Saint Vincent Ferrer's Church on Lexington Avenue in New York. Sitting unobtrusively in the back of the church, he would drop in several times a week, light a candle, and pray for about 15 minutes.1-3 Warhol lived with his devout mother most of his adult life. He maintained an altar with a crucifix and well-worn prayer book beside his bed. Despite his religious beliefs, religious imagery was not evident in his art until he initiated his series of Last Suppers. The imagery of the Last Supper had followed him throughout his life. His brother recalled that a reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper hung in the family kitchen during their childhood.4 Andy’s mother carried a prayer card in her bible with a reproduction of the mural, and after her death, he kept it and treasured it.

Leonardo’s The Last Supper mural was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and was painted between 1495 and 1498. It was placed in the main building of a church that had been remodeled in order to build a Sforza family court chapel and burial place for the members of his family, with the mural as its centerpiece. The lunettes above the painting, formed by the 3 arches of the ceiling, were painted with the Sforza coat of arms. The opposite wall of the refectory was covered by a fresco of the Crucifixion by another artist; Leonardo painted the likenesses of Sforza family members on it.5 Leonardo was not experienced with fresco but instead painted al secco, a method more often used on wood. In fresco, the colors used that are applied to wet plaster permanently bond as the plaster dries, but with al secco, the pigment, mixed with oil and tempera, is applied to dry stucco. This approach allowed Leonardo to work slowly, to render colors more vividly and precisely, to reflect on the work in progress, and to make corrections. Unfortunately, the bonding of the paint to the stucco is unstable, so the mural has deteriorated over the years.

Leonardo’s approach was unique to the story of the Last Supper: 12 men are seated at dinner celebrating a solemn feast with their charismatic leader, Jesus. Each of them has been carefully selected by Him to carry out His teachings. They are gathered together in an occupied city where the authorities are plotting to strike against them, and among them sits a traitor. Leonardo’s Last Supper portrays each apostle’s reaction when Jesus announces that one among them will betray Him, and he portrays the turmoil that results from the impact of Jesus’ words by showing how the apostles differ in their reactions to this tragic news: shocked, puzzled, bemused, terrified, suspicious, angry, or despairing.5

Jesus is seated at the center of the table and is depicted as larger than His disciples who are arranged in 4 groups of 3. The most dramatic response is shown to His right. John, adjacent to Jesus, leans toward Peter, who moves forward between Judas and John to whisper to John “Who is it of whom he speaks?” (John 13:21-24). Peter’s movement causes Judas, now behind Peter, to rear back and spill salt on the table as he clutches his money pouch to his breast.

Leonardo both indicates the betrayal by Judas and anticipates the Eucharist that is to follow by drawing the viewers’ attention to Jesus’ hands.6 The movement of His right hand mirrors that of Judas’ hand as both reach toward the same dish. For in the biblical narrative, He identifies Judas by saying “He that dips his hand with me in the dish shall betray me.” Jesus’ hands also convey sacramental meaning. Simultaneously, His right hand is reaching toward the glass of wine that He will later raise in the Eucharist. His left hand is open and welcoming as He reaches toward the bread that will become the bread of life. A contemporary of Leonardo’s wrote that as one entered the refectory the first thing that attracts the viewer’s attention is this welcoming hand of Jesus.5

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), American. The Last Supper (Dove), 1986. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 302.9 × 668.7 cm (9 ft 11¼ in × 21 ft 11¼ in). Gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Photo credit: Digital Image. The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York, NY. © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/Artists Rights Society, New York, NY.

Warhol used an outline drawing from an encyclopedia of famous paintings for The Last Supper (Dove) (Figure). The viewer’s attention is captured by commercial logos that obscure parts of the drawing and press forward toward the viewer. In the left corner, there is a red price tag for 59 cents, and the Dove Soap logo is below that; on the right, there is the General Electric logo. His juxtaposing of the sacred and the secular is startling to the viewer. By bringing together supermarket brand-name products and sacramental imagery is he asserting that, in modern life, these are neither separate nor contradictory? Perhaps the contrast makes the sacramental more real and meaningful. The price tag suggests value and might imply that spirituality is not costly and is there for everyone, rich and poor alike.

The dove above Jesus’ head represents the Holy Spirit. When examined more closely, one can see that Warhol has subtly moved the dove away from its accustomed place on the Dove Soap logo and placed it in a triangular space right above Jesus’ head. From his Byzantine Catholic background, Warhol would have been quite familiar with biblical accounts of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The dove allows John the Baptist to recognize Jesus for “when the heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descend[ed] upon [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove.” (Luke 3:21-22). With regard to the General Electric logo, the General Electric motto “we bring good things to light” can be thought of as a metaphor for the creator who brings good things into being. Thus, Warhol is concretely and personally presenting the theological concept of the Trinity, which is so important in the Byzantine Catholic Church. Warhol’s playfulness does not minimize religion but, rather, reminds us that despite our rampant consumerism, it is our underlying beliefs that strengthen and sustain us after all.

Section Editor: James C. Harris, MD.
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: James C. Harris, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1800 Orleans St, Baltimore, MD 21287 (jharri10@jhmi.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

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