The Soapy Spirit of Pentecost



The Last Supper (Dove) by Andy Warhol, 1986.

I return again and again to the religious art of Andy Warhol.  I like the way he plays with images and ideas that were familiar to him from his Ruthenian Catholic upbringing in Pittsburgh.  Spiritual symbols are interspersed with objects commercial and secular.  The effect is jarring, but it often opens me to new insights about God.

Warhol bases a number of paintings on the famous Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. In one, the Holy Spirit is represented not by wind, or fire, or a mysterious light.  Instead, the Spirit shows up as the icon from Dove soap. Jesus is shown in his customary spot in the middle of the disciples at a long table, but there, hovering just over his head is that iconic symbol from the soap.  To underscore the point, Warhol includes the curvy, trademarked word in soapy script: Dove.      

There are many ways to interpret Warhol’s juxtaposition of the sacred and profane.  Some suggest Warhol is criticizing the cheapening of religious images.  He is pointing out how easy it is for us to confuse a deep, symbolic, religious idea with a shorthand symbol of that idea. While I think this is an important part of Warhol’s message, I especially appreciate the way he makes a biblical connection by mixing the Holy Spirit with soap. 

At the baptism of our Lord, the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus “like a dove.”  Ever since, religious art has used the dove to represent the Spirit and brings with it layers of religious meaning.  It reminds us of the dove of hope and promise that Noah sent out to search for dry land after the flood.  It represents God’s chosen people Israel, as in the Book of the Prophet Hosea. Dove soap mixed with the Spirit reminds us that at baptism, we are washed clean.   

As we celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism on this Day of Pentecost, we could give soap bars as reminders of our baptism.  (But we won’t).  We will, however, remember our own baptisms, giving thanks that the Holy Spirit continues to cleanse us and renew us. The Spirit washes away the past and restores us for new faithfulness.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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