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Warhol: the God years

The artist’s religious faith sets his work in a new light

"Warhol/Icon" and "Warhol: Screen Tests"

Various venues, Athens

Who, or what, was Andy Warhol? We all know the answer to that: the man who painted tins of Campbell's soup, the definitive pop artist, a celebrator of the fleeting, the superficial and the "famous for 15 minutes". When the Warholas arrived in America in 1918, however, they fixed their identity in a very different manner. "If people asked who we were," said Andy's brother James, "we would say we were Byzantine."

They were, in fact, from Ruthenia, an eastern European territory long conquered and divided. But the faith to which they belonged bore a better-known title and was, in any case, possibly more important to the devout Warholas than their nationality. The Byzantine Catholics were an offshoot of Eastern Orthodoxy who had placed themselves under the protection of the Holy See during the Middle Ages, but who retained the Greek ritual and iconography of their mother church.

This mostly forgotten part of Warhol's life provides the raison d'être for this dual-location exhibition, the screen test films at the Potnia Thiron gallery in Athens and "Warhol/ Icon: the Creation of Image" at the city's Byzantine and Christian Museum. The Warholas walked six miles from their home in the Soho area of Pittsburgh to St John Chrysostom Church every Sunday, and it was the iconostasis there, argues the "Warhol/Icon" curator, Paul Moorhouse, that was young Andy's first experience of art. These sacred images, at first glance flat and two-dimensional, though they contain layer upon layer of further meaning, were objects of veneration to the child who was later so instrumental in changing the primary meaning of that word, "icon"; so much so, that he would often ask his mother to join him in prayer before the icons that adorned their walls at home. As an adult, we are told, Warhol regularly took time out from the artifice and moral laxity of the Factory to attend church, and was eventually buried in a Byzantine Catholic cemetery.

All this provides sufficient backdrop for the connection between Warhol's religious background and his art not to be made too explicitly. It is enough to walk through the subterranean halls of the Byzantine and Christian Museum and observe how iconography became simpler around the 14th century, noting the importance of the golden background - the light of God - before being confronted with the first work in "Warhol/Icon": a side-profile in gold leaf, an idealised portrait of how the artist would have liked to have seen himself, peaceful, calm, at rest. As one progresses throughthe rooms, the silk screens - of Marilyn, Jackie, Elvis, Jagger - both become more abstract, blurring, accreting layers and lines, appearing almost as negatives, but also more stark.

But even more powerful are the screen tests at Potnia Thiron nearby. Two floors of this thin, elegant townhouse are devoted to the largest collection of these - 100 out of 472 silent screen portraits or "stillies" Warhol recorded from 1964-66 - ever assembled. In each one the three minutes of film (a reel or 100ft of celluloid) is slowed to last four long minutes in which the subjects do mostly nothing. There's Lou Reed blinking while holding a Hershey bar to his face; a boyish Dennis Hopper; Edie Sedgwick and Niki de Saint Phalle; Salvador Dalí, who insisted on his reel being shown upside down.

But the famous faces are not those that strike the viewer most. It's the unknowns who do battle with the camera - striving to act out, unwilling to submit to the unmoving scrutiny of the constant lens - who reveal most, as do those who wilt under its gaze. One woman - middle-aged, etched with cares, an émigré from war-torn Europe, I imagine - looks unerringly down; caught, it seems, in contemplation of some unspeakable private grief. I would have gone just to have seen this one image. I cannot say how long it will remain with me - perhaps for always. It alone is proof of the profundity in Warhol's work, and that his icons speak of greater truths than the celebrity culture with which his name is inextricably linked.

“Warhol: Screen Tests" is at Potnia Thiron, and "Warhol/Icon" at the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, both until 10 January

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London