A woman hangs in agony, perhaps defeat, her arms shackled to a cross.
A gas-masked man holds a sword against his right shoulder, the smell of injustice and murder as ripe as the blood on the blade.
A soldier bayonets the body of a man, whose wide-eyed stare and gaping wound underscore his pain.
Here I am, at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, bearing witness to the artistic genius of Maxo Vanka. I had heard about the nearly two dozen tempera treasures that Vanka painted in two sessions in 1937 and 1941. I even saw a reproduction of one or two of them on a Web site. But nothing prepared me for such wonder and awe. It was -- do I dare? -- a religious experience.
These are not your grandmother's traditional church ornamentations. There are no pretty pietas, radiant resurrections, conforming confirmations. Vanka combines secular and spiritual imagery to tell the story of Croatian peasants who left their homeland at the turn of the century for a better life in America, but the works also reek of his personal beliefs about the futility of war and the destruction of his native land.
In such a modest church, high on a hill off busy Route 28, the murals are far from pretty, yet they cannot be ignored. They are images that force confrontation and examination: The eyes of the Virgin Mary wide-eyed in horror and shock, the body of Jesus ripped open through his heart, men and women weeping, lost and afraid. This is as much art as interactive social commentary, at once explicit, intense, unsettling and uncomfortable.
In all the years I went to Catholic Mass, I never saw Jesus or his mother or Moses or any of the apostles looking so human. Here they are not references set forth in holy Scriptures or characters left to a vivid imagination. Vanka gives them form and function; they share fears and concerns and grief and frustration and injustices just as do the Croatian peasants, the mothers weeping over a coffin, the family mourning a mining accident in Johnstown.
There is no right or wrong way to view the murals. I am given a tour by Mary Petrich, a volunteer and member of The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka, who remembers attending the church as a child when Vanka was actually painting.
Using a hand-held light to illustrate points of interest and hard-to-see details, she fills in blanks and adds much detail. She relates how a Millvale WPA worker posed for Christ in the mural known as "The Crucifixion." She illuminates the caption "To Louis Adamic" (in "Mother 1941"), a reference to the artist's writer friend. As we stand smack-dab in front of the altar, Petrich mentions that Vanka was born out of wedlock. I decide to go for it. "So he was a bastard?" She nods. "Even bastards are God's children."
Two weeks after my visit, I cannot get the images out of my mind. They haunt me the way a really good Hitchcock film lingers long after the final credits have rolled. "Yes, they are frightening, especially at night," Petrich says. "These murals are a challenge, but Christianity is a challenge, not a comfort."
I am especially haunted by "The Capitalist" -- an American capitalist feasts on a dinner being served to him by an African-American servant as he feasts on the stock report. An angel weeps, a skeleton hand offers some fire from hell. I think it's Vanka's tortured trump card. I heard that the figure was supposed to be of Andrew Carnegie or Henry Clay Frick, but no, Petrich corrects me, it's Andrew Mellon.
As we meander, Petrich points out some water damage; some works are mildly affected, others more so. "We must raise money to preserve these paintings," she says.
On my way out, I glance up at the ceiling of the landmark church. Vanka did this work as well, but it looks as if it was done by a different hand. There is light, hope, stars and planets, angels playing instruments.
I eye the skies. Petrich's eyes follow mine. "Always look to the heavens," she says with a smile.
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 16, 2008) The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh said it never offered St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church $1 million to whitewash one of artist Maxo Vanka's murals, called "The Capitalist,'' as suggested in this column by freelance writer Alan W. Petrucelli as originally published July 14, 2008.
To commemorate Pittsburgh's 250th birthday this year, the Post-Gazette has asked newcomer and longtime writer/editor Alan W. Petrucelli, marketing/communications director for Dance Alloy, to share his insights with us weekly. He lives in Churchill and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .