Replication and Revelation

Author: Sarah Reiff Conell

PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

This Valentine’s Day, members of the History of Art and Architecture Department spent some quality time with Warhol. Together with Chief Curator José Carlos Díaz, we explored the exhibition Andy Warhol: Revelation at the Andy Warhol Museum. This exhibition brought together the rich archival holdings of the museum alongside Warhol’s artworks, highlighting the influence of Catholicism on the artist’s image making. The show also includes local objects from Pittsburgh, like panels from the iconostasis (icon screen) of Warhol’s church, St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, located in Ruska Dolina (now known as the Four Mile Run neighborhood of Greenfield).

Through engagement with the exhibition and in dialogue with the curator, I gained a new appreciation for Warhol’s work and was fascinated by the way that the artist engaged in the process of copying through the lens of religious image making. As mentioned in the exhibition catalog, “Warhol’s devotion was not an act but a fundamental part of his life.” Images take on meaning in the eyes of their beholders, and Warhol knowingly treads the line between objects of genuine devotion and kitsch that thwart such distinctions as he merges high and low, sacred and profane in his copies. Seemingly mundane objects can be incredibly powerful, as they are more accessible and are able to be activated by the attentiveness of viewer. Religious objects have persistently traversed the boundary between cheap copies and treasured surrogates.

I came to this conversation from my area of expertise on miracle working images in the sixteenth century Europe. Early modern copies were understood to connect mortals with the heavenly. In the twenty-first century, replicated images can seem to lose their value, in part because of the scale of copying that can be accomplished with relative ease. Still today, the role of the copied image in Catholicism resists this characterization, as images fulfill roles that supersede artistic innovation in the everyday lives of people and their devotional practices. 

Valuable repetition can be found in a variety of spiritual objects and devotional practices. For example, liturgical calendars mark time through a rotation of days dedicated to honoring particular saints. Repetitive actions can also be supported by specialized objects. Praying the Rosary is a way to commit to memory important scriptural events, and each iteration of the prayer cycle is primed for reflection. The “Hail Mary” prayer is a condensed version of prayerful repetition, and each reflective utterance potentially reveals new points of attention as well as a deepening connection with a central saint of the Catholic faith. 

Warhol is well known for his pop icons, which he created in multiples. The blue and gold representations of Jacqueline Kennedy mourning the assassination of her husband are reminiscent of portrayals of the Virgin Mary responding to Her Son’s crucifixion. Both offer the opportunity for viewers to connect through the experience of traumatic loss, an empathetic response that is held in tension with the intentional flatness of the picture plane. These women are simultaneously near and distant, known and unknowable. Such images of the Virgin Mary have been copied for centuries. Iconic portraits of the Madonna have garnered legitimacy through a chain of reproduction that spans back to the earliest depiction of Her, which some believe was painted by Saint Luke. The practice of copying paintings that were produced hundreds of years apart, connects each iteration of that image to a powerful original. This topic is too large for a single blog post, but it is important to reconsider images as meaningful for the ways that they link humans to each other and to the divine.  

The works selected for the Revelation exhibition offer examples of reference and wit that I am excited to share. Inspired by this show and eager to continue our conversation, I wrote a short reflection on a handful of objects that stirred connections with my own research area. Click here if you want to read more about the images above.