At 75, Maxo Vanka's church murals in Millvale gaining new admirers
February 28, 2016 12:00 AM
A mural at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale by Croatian artist Maxo Vanka. The priest is Father Albert Zagar, who commissioned Mr. Vanka to create the paintings.
Under artist Maxo Vanka’s soaring murals, parishioners at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church celebrate the church's 100th anniversary Mass on May 21, 2000.
A mural by artist Maxo Vanka adorns a wall in St. Nicholas Church, an ethnic Croatian Catholic church in Millvale. The church is commemorating the 75th anniversary of the completion of these works.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As she grew up attending daily and Sunday Mass six days a week at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in the 1950s and 1960s, Diane Novosel and her classmates were surrounded by paintings they found baffling and haunting.
And no wonder. Of what they could see of the murals in the small, dim church, nobody ever explained what they were about. There was a devilish hand reaching toward a top-hatted capitalist; a maternal figure hanging crucified in wartime; a peasant Madonna who could be as comforting in her muscular embrace as she could be terrifying in shattering battlefield weapons.
“For a young child, there were just a lot of haunting images, and people really didn’t talk about them,” Ms. Novosel recalled. But eventually she and others gained a new appreciation for this unparalleled portrait of an ethnic community’s faithful survival through desperate times.
“I knew they were unique, I just didn’t know the story,” Ms. Novosel said. When she did, she realized, “This is the story of the immigrant experience, this is the story of Pittsburgh. It made it much more compelling that I do something to join up with the other people to do something to preserve them, to light them, to put them on the map.”
They’re definitely on the map now, even if in an unexpected part of the map. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Croatian-American artist Maxo Vanka’s completion of 25 murals that cover the walls and ceilings of the hilltop church in Millvale, a river town on Pittsburgh’s northern border.
In its day, the work was hailed both near and far as a daring landmark in modern ecclesiastical art — “one of the few distinguished sets of church murals in the U.S.,” said Time magazine — and an homage to the precarious lives of its immigrant Croatian parishioners.
“You’d hardly expect Millvale to be one of the great American art centers,” The Pittsburgh Press said in 1941. “The smoky town, cradled in the industrial area along the Allegheny, populated largely by mill workers and miners, noted for its contributions to contemporary art? ... It’s a fact.”
It added: “No innocuous, run-of-the-mine church art are these, but powerful social documents, in which a sensitive, brilliant artist has portrayed his abhorrence of injustice and war.”
Today, the artwork has transcended its original context, said Marya Halderman, granddaughter of the artist.
“It’s not just about Croatian immigrants anymore,” said Ms. Halderman, who maintains the Bucks County farm where Mr. Vanka lived and worked. “It’s about life and death, rich man-poor man, charity. It’s just so universal.”
In two intensive bursts of creativity in 1937 and 1941, Mr. Vanka poured out a searing vision of faith and social conscience in egg tempura. He raged against the inhumanity of a world engulfed in the Great Depression, labor strife and the onset of World War II.
Mr. Vanka blended everything from Byzantine iconography to the social indignation of the Mexican muralist movement of his time. He contrasted the Old World of Croatia with the New World of America — and a wounded earth on the walls with a glorious heaven high above in the church ceiling.
“It’s religion, expressed in our social life,” Father Albert Zagar, the former pastor of the church, said in 1941. ”At the same time, it’s completely Catholic.”
Over the decades, the murals suffered water damage and other wear. As later generations of parishioners slowly integrated into the American melting pot, they also lost their immediate connection to the paintings’ narratives.
More recently, the murals have enjoyed a revival in appreciation among parishioners and other admirers who have worked to restore them — even as St. Nicholas faces the challenges and uncertain future that many small, urban ethnic parishes have faced.
Those working to conserve the paintings — and who have reversed years of deterioration — will be marking the works’ 75th anniversary at an annual gala Friday at the church. That evening, the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka will inaugurate new LED lighting to illuminate some of the paintings in the dark sanctuary.
It was partly that interior darkness, Ms. Novosel said, that impeded her and her peers from clearly seeing and appreciating the paintings when she was younger.
It wasn’t until the parish hosted a drama based on the murals in 1981 by the late author David Demarest — a Carnegie Mellon University English professor and advocate for preserving the region’s industrial heritage — that Ms. Novosel could see the paintings lit by spotlights and could hear about their context.
“For the first time in my life I learned the story,” she said. “It was such a revelation.”
Ms. Novosel, a former president of the preservation society and now a docent who regularly offers tours of the church, said once she knew about the artwork, “I didn’t want to let that go.”
Childhood influences in art
Maksimilijan Vanka was born in 1889 in Croatia, which was then in the Austro-Hungarian empire and later part of the ill-fated Yugoslavia.
An out-of-wedlock son of European nobility, young Maxo was raised in his early years by a peasant woman, Dora Jugova — the prototype for his enduring artistic motif of strong, affectionate and pious women.
He later received formal training and grew to become an accomplished artist. He studied Croatian peasant costumes and other folkways.
Mr. Vanka was studying art in Belgium during the outbreak of World War I. What he saw during his non-combatant service in the Red Cross is reflected in some of the St. Nicholas paintings, with their gas masks, ghoulish faces and barbed-wire crown of thorns.
In 1931, Mr. Vanka married Margaret Stetten, an American Jewish woman. With fascism and war clouds spreading across the continent, the couple moved to the United States, first to New York and eventually Bucks County.
After modest success with portraits and landscapes, Mr. Vanka drew positive notice with an exhibit in Pittsburgh. Among the viewers was Father Zagar of St. Nicholas, which was serving the Croatian Catholic population in and around Millvale. The parishioners had exchanged the rural poverty in their homeland for the hard and dangerous work in the mines and mills of southwestern Pennsylvania.
A fire had gutted the St. Nicholas church interior, and Father Zagar invited Mr. Vanka to fill the blank new walls.
Among Mr. Vanka’s first works was a large Madonna and child above the main altar, accompanied by the Croatian words for “Mary, Queen of Croatians, pray for us.” The artist posed Mary in Byzantine style — yet far from the otherworldly wisps of traditional iconography, this Mary is a stocky peasant woman with burly hands. She wears a courtly, embroidered dress in traditional Croatian style and in the national colors of red, white and blue.
Cultural historian Frances Babic of suburban Cleveland, who for many years curated the collection at the Croatian Heritage Museum there, immediately recognized Mr. Vanka’s imagery when she visited St. Nicholas for the first time in the 1990s.
Ms. Babic, who has studied depictions of the sacred feminine in Slavic art, said the painting “took my breath away.” By dressing Mary in courtly robes, Mr. Vanka was affirming a peasant woman’s dignity, she said.
Ms. Babic said she was later invited to give a talk on the subject at St. Nicholas and was told afterward by one woman in the audience, herself poor, muscular, and hard-working: “Today, you validated my life.”
While many of Mr. Vanka’s paintings are unconventional, they harbor traditional sentiments, she said: “The comforting element is the religion that seems to make it possible to get through the difficult times and to take pride in being who you are, even if others look at you as being in a low station in life,” Ms. Babic said.
Mr. Vanka “may not have been a member of any church, but he was very much in touch with the Creator,” she added.
Mr. Vanka flipped other conventions as well. The artist had for years painted the down-and-out in America, and he used an African-American steelworker as the model for Jesus in a crucifixion scene — a then-radical departure from traditional depictions of Jesus as Caucasian.
Mr. Vanka also painted pairs of contrasting murals. A painting in one set showed peasant Croatians in colorful native dress, kneeling in prayer in a landscape topped by a country church. In the mural’s counterpart, immigrants in an America mill town wear drab work clothes, yet as they stand beside a kneeling Father Zagar, they hold a model of the modest yellow-brick St. Nicholas, their spiritual toehold in the New World.
Another painting, ”Croatian Mother Gives Her Son for War,” shows a tableau of women in mourning dress, preparing a body for an already-crowded church graveyard. It is juxtaposed with “Immigrant Mother Gives Her Sons for Industry,” showing a similar scene, based on an actual mining fatality in Johnstown, Cambria County. Both recall traditional paintings of Mary and other women mourning over the crucified Jesus.
Yet another painting recalls the biblical parable of a rich man who feasted while the beggar Lazarus languished at his gate. In Mr. Vanka’s depiction, the rich man is an American capitalist reading the 1941 stock report while he sits at a table laden with culinary delights, ignoring the African-American beggar beneath him. A demonic hand reaches behind the rich man with the hellfire that is his destiny.
Across the way is a mural of a family sharing a modest meal in equality and fellowship, with Jesus himself hovering in their midst.
Mr. Vanka’s granddaughter said the Millvale murals are his greatest legacy. She recalled the artist having a gentle, spiritual demeanor which, along with his bearded, angular profile, prompted friends to nickname him Jesus.
“He was not formally religious, he did not go to church, but everything he did, everything he said, had that spiritualness to it,” said Ms. Halderman.
She was impressed by how he “loved animals of all types,” even carrying sparrows and goldfinches as pets — an anecdote that recalls Mr. Vanka’s depiction of St. Francis ringed by birds in one of the St. Nicholas murals.
“They just lived on him, in his pocket, in the studio,” she recalled. “That was a wonderment for a child to see.”
She was so taken with his sanctity that when the devastating news arrived that Mr. Vanka had drowned in 1963 while swimming off the coast of Mexico, she asked her grandmother, “Will Maxo be a saint now?”
Today, Ms. Halderman and her husband continue to preserve the farm as Mr. Vanka had it, with old Croatian furniture and many works of art that, on a smaller scale, echo the motifs at St. Nicholas, such as a pair of images showing a Madonna with child and a peasant woman bearing a sheaf of wheat.
Even if Mr. Vanka’s genius cannot approach that of Michelangelo in his unrivaled Vatican frescoes, in both cases a single patron (a Renaissance pope, an immigrant priest) gave an artist free rein to turn a sanctuary into a vast canvas for a unique artistic and spiritual vision.
“It’s like we’re the Sistine Chapel of Pittsburgh,” said the Rev. Daniel Whalen, administrator at St. Nicholas, who often visited the art treasures of Rome’s churches while studying there. “It’s different art, it’s a different presentation, but there isn’t really anything around here like this.”
Even among less than devout artists, he said, “Somehow God brings that stuff out of those guys.”
For more information about Friday's event, which is open to the public, go to http://vankamurals.org.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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