Painted in 1986, Last Supper belongs to Andy Warhol’s final cycle of paintings. Across this large canvas, Warhol combined Pop culture and art history by choosing one of the most famous and widely reproduced paintings in the world, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, and rendered it in a vibrant Pop color. In this way, not only does Warhol pay homage to the Renaissance master, but he also dares to place himself in that same lineage—a prophetic move made all the more poignant by the fact that Warhol would be dead only a month after these paintings were completed.
As he did with most of his paintings, Warhol began his Last Supper series with a considered study of a pre-existing image. Warhol worked from a cheap black and white photograph of a widely circulated 19th century engraving and a schematic outline drawing found in a copy of the 1913 book Cyclopedia of Painters and Painting. Warhol converted this image into a silkscreen which he worked into a series of canvases, one of which can be seen here. The idea for the series came from the Italian gallerist Alexandre Iolas, who had recently opened a new gallery space opposite the Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church and Dominican convent in Milan where Leonardo painted the late 15th century original. The series was an immediate success as during their first exhibition at Iolas’s gallery over 30,000 people queued to see Warhol’s work.
Because Warhol’s source for Last Supper was a print taken from an engraving of Leonardo’s painting, it was already removed from the original. Since it was painted over 500 years ago, Leonardo’s painting has become an established part of art historical canon and part of popular culture adorning millions of posters, postcards and other kitsch tourist ephemera. It is as a coincidental result of the endemic nature of Leonardo’s image that it had already featured prominently in the background of Warhol’s life: his mother used to have a reproduction of the image in her bible, and another copy was apparently hung in the family’s kitchen. It was therefore very much a part of Warhol’s own highly personal universe, as well as of the wider public one.
It was not only the image that influenced Warhol, but the content too: it was a surprise for many of Warhol’s fans, and even some of his friends, to discover that he was a deeply religious man. He seldom missed mass, and his trips to various churches both for services and in a humanitarian capacity are often charted in his diaries. This religious background, rooted in part in his childhood within the Ruthenian community in Pittsburgh, had stayed with him throughout his life. The Ruthenians were a branch of the church from Eastern Europe that was affiliated with the Catholic, not the Orthodox, Church (albeit with a brief hiatus after 1945), and Warhol was brought up within its fold. This was to be reflected in his life as well as his art, not least in his concerted effort to attend an audience with the Pope in Rome.
In stark contrast to its seemingly eternal life as a reproduction, Leonardo da Vinci’s actual Last Supper was in severe danger of being lost forever when Warhol decided to immortalize it. The masterpiece had gradually become less and less visible, a problem that had been occurring since the 16th century due to the artist’s experimental choice of media, which was later compounded by damage due to Allied bombing raids during World War II. Also, overpainting and restoration work obscured what remained of the original painting. Warhol, in fact, joined the protest against the ongoing restoration by signing a petition shortly before his death. The Pop-colored palette might, metaphorically at least, be an attempt by Warhol to “restore” the original back to its former glory, building on the expressive sfumato technique that Leonardo famously developed, and providing a vibrancy to the image that the original no longer had.
“Church is a fun place to go,” Warhol once claimed (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Taylor, “Andy Warhol: The Last Interview,” Andy Warhol: The Late Work, exh. cat., Düsseldorf, 2004, p. 121). Indeed, his first exposure to art was through looking at painted icons in church as a boy, an influence that would reemerge in his vision of Pop saints such as Marilyn, Elvis and Jackie. Warhol’s embrace of the image of Last Supper at the end of his life in many ways brought him full circle.