March 7th 2020

“32 Campbell’s Soup Cans” (detail) 1962, Andy Warhol, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York.  When asked why he choose to paint the 32 varieties of Campbell’s soup, Warhol replied,  that as a child he ate it every day.  This raising of a common consumer product to the level of art might be seen as typical of this artist, who famously said that he was deeply superficial. However, the superficiality of Warhol masked a profound sense of the sacred in ordinary life.   By painting cans of soup, arranged in rows as in a store, Warhol provokes the viewer to look again, but he does not give much away.  It is worth scratching the beneath this surface.  In fact,  it worth doing a bit of digging.  His choice of a much photographed subject and his use of screen printing suggested that anyone could have made these images.  He projected and screen-printed images.  In the years to follow, he would start with a particular photograph of a well-known subject, which he had lifted from newspapers and magazines and delivered  a series of almost, but not quite, identical images. But the screen-printing process also flattened out the subject, loosing variations of light and shadow, and so losing the illusion of three dimensional space which had been the hallmark of Western art since the Renaissance. Some saw this as playful rebellion against an artistic canon.  Opinions varied. The definitive clue came in the eulogy at his Memorial Mass, which was held on 1st April 1987.  Privately, Andy Warhol had been a devout Catholic throughout his life.  He was brought up as a Catholic of an Orthodox Rite.  Each Saturday, his mother took him to the Byzantine Church of St John Chrysostom in Pittsburgh for Vespers and again on every Sunday morning for three Masses on the trot.  This continued until he left for New York at the age of 21.   For 20 years and for eight hours every week the Warhola boy sat facing a screen covered in icons what is known as the Iconostasis.  The screen separates the congregation from the sanctuary.  From 1951 when his mother moved into his New York apartment the prayed together each morning before he left the apartment.  Most afternoons he would spent time in prayer in the nearby Dominican Church of St  Vincent Ferrer.  He always wore a cross and carried a rosary beads in his pocket.  However, it was his Byzantine Catholic roots which shaped his art.   With icons there is no attempt to represent real space, but rather the concern is with sacred space.  Icons are flat, superficial and yet profound.  They are repetitious because they are written according to strict rules.  It is not about being original, rather it is a matter of producing, not so much an image of the sacred,  but an image which itself participates in and mediates the sacred.  On the icon’s surface the invisible becomes visible in a spiritual way, so that the sacred is not so much revealed as encountered.   There is no doubt that Warhol’s images are like icons,  but with a consumer product or media image rather than a sacred figure as the subject.  But could Warhol really be using a soup can to convey the spiritual?  The soup can might speak of contemporary American culture, even of the “American Dream”, or, because it tasted the same in the mouths of rich and poor alike, a supposed egalitarian ethos.   But as an exemplar of the stable diet of the working class and religious youngster that was Warhol, it might also speak of the Eucharist.  In his mother’s apartment where Warhol grew up, there was a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s last Supper.  This image inspired his last works. For those who have eyes to see Warhol subtly elevates the humble and ubiquitous can of soup.  The unseen mystery of the Eucharist is quietly suggested because soup nourishes and sustains. The whole point of an icon is encounter, which is very similar to the grace of transfiguration, which is a graced encounter with truth.  Most people focused on the outside of the can, with its gleaming metal and coloured label, but, it has been noted, that very few considered what is inside. These days as you enter an Edinburgh supermarket, sometimes there will be  people from a local food bank who will give you a list of items of which they are short.  They always list tinned food.   Actually, Andy Warhol was a regular helper at a homelessness project run by the Church of the Heavenly Rest.   On the program for his Memorial Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral the Pastor of that Church wrote about Andy Warhol’s regular presence at the project.  “He loved these nameless New Yorkers and they loved him back. We will pause to remember Andy this Easter, confident that he will be feasting with us at a Heavenly Banquet, because he had heard another Homeless Person who said: “I was hungry and you gave me food….””


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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