In the last decade of his life, Andy Warhol continued working with the same energy and passion that had marked the earlier periods of his career. This final decade is set off from the others, however, by a distinctive interest in religious subject matter. Warhol's representation of religious themes culminated in his final painting series, of 1986, a large and diverse collection of pictures of the Last Supper, of which the present work is an especially vibrant example.
In the present picture, we see Leonardo's composition duplicated two twice. Warhol used his trademark technique of photosilkscreen, applying the silkscreen image with black acrylic paint to the painted-green canvas. Warhol also made other paintings of the same double-image composition, but with other combinations of color and repetition. In all these photosilkscreened Last Supper paintings, Warhol used as his source a photographic reproduction of a nineteenth-century engraving of Leonardo's painting, rather than a more modern and accurate photographic reproduction (J. D. Dillenberger, The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, New York, 1998, p. 103). The result is an image that is many times removed from the original mural painting. And, like Warhol's famous Pop images, the reproduction is a product of popular culture, reminding us that paintings themselves--not the least Leonardo's Last Supper--can enter the realm of popular culture alongside Campbell's Soup cans and publicity photographs of movie stars.
These paintings grow directly out of Warhol's earlier work in both their subject matter and their technique. The present work belongs to one of two distinct Last Supper cycles that Warhol created in 1986. One cycle is composed of the photosilkscreened paintings described above, while the other is composed of a diverse range of hand-painted compositions, with the elements of Leonardo's picture endered in black outlines. In both cycles, Warhol united popular imagery, high art, and religious sentiment. This combination of seemingly contradictory elements was characteristic of his work throughout his career (see R. Wolf, "A Radio and a Crucifix," Religion and the Arts, Fall 1996, pp. 10-14).
Indeed, as we now know, Warhol was a devout Catholic (see J. Richardson, "Eulogy for Andy Warhol," 1987, published in Andy Warhol: Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away! Late Paintings and Related Works, 1984-86, New York, 1992). And Leonardo's Last Supper, may have been particularly important for him since his mother Julia (who lived with him in New York) kept in her prayer book a holy card with a small color reproduction of Leonardo's painting (Dillenberger, p. 80).
During the 1980s, Warhol began to focus more and more on explicitly religious iconography. In 1982, he made stark and somewhat abstract pictures of crosses and of Easter eggs; in 1984, he created variations of Old Master paintings; in 1985, he moved on to Raphael's Sistine Madonna, of 1985; and finally in 1986, he began to concentrate on the Last Supper.
The silkscreened Last Supper paintings were commissioned by the art dealer Alexandre Iolas for the opening exhibition at Iolas's new gallery in Milan. This gallery, located in a former palace, was just across the piazza from the refectory in which Leonardo's Last Supper mural is located. Warhol seemed to be drawn to the idea of his copies appearing in close proximity to the original, so that a direct comparison could be made. On an earlier occasion, in 1982, he participated in an exhibition, at the Campidoglio in Rome, in which his copies of paintings by Giorgio di Chirico were hung side-by-side with the originals.
The Milan Last Supper exhibit opened on 22 January 1987. This was the last opening of his work that Warhol would attend, as he died exactly one month later, on 22 February 1987. The Last Supper paintings, as images of redemption, take on a special poignancy within Warhol's oeuvre.
We are grateful to Professor Reva Wolf for her assistance in the preparation of this essay.