Two weeks before the opening of Tate Britain's 'Pop Life' exhibition featuring the work of, among others, the 'Pope of Pop' himself, Andy Warhol, a curious item appeared in the Guardian under the banner: 'Pope seeks to frame new relationship with artists.' Reading more like the kind of small ad that usually appears in the personal columns rather than in the editorial pages, it was actually a report about a new initiative launched by the Vatican to forge 'a new and fertile alliance between art and faith' to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's 'Letter to Artists' and the 45th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's original initiative in setting up the Vatican Museum's modern religious and contemporary art collection in 1973.
The collection includes works by Auguste Rodin, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. Warhol's work is conspicuous by its absence, despite his having been a good Catholic boy who attended mass regularly until his death, and despite his own efforts, recorded in his Diary, to secure a commission to make a portrait of Pope John Paul II. In one entry he notes: 'Hermann-the-German said he's 90% sure that he has the pope for me to do. And the other night at a party Mario D'Urso said, "I've been working on getting the pope for you".' But it was not to be. He and his business manager, Fred Hughes, did eventually secure a brief audience with the Pope in 1980, but there was no private sitting. Instead Warhol had to content himself with silk-screening a found image of the pontiff.
Warhol was not without fans in the church hierarchy, however, as he gleefully reported in his Diary the following year. As a guest of the now disgraced media tycoon, Conrad Black, Warhol had been introduced to a real live cardinal (or rather half of him', since he'd recently suffered a stroke) who remarked that he'd heard that the artist had a nephew who was a priest to which Warhol replied, Oh yes, but he just ran away with a Mexican nun'. Hughes, who was with him, was horrified, but to his credit, the cardinal told him that he admired Warhol's honesty, adding: 'And I love his art and I know he goes to church every Sunday.'
Ironically, the Vatican's wish list now includes Warhol's name, along with those of other 'great 20th-century American artists' such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and Clifford Still, as well as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, whose inclusion is interesting, given the Vatican's position on homosexuality and the hardline views of the present pope, Benedict XVI, himself. …