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Church murals depicting spiritual, cultural lives of Croatian immigrants draw renewed attention

By Mary Thomas,
Post-Gazette Art Critic
Thursday, September 27, 2001

In an overhead mural inches above the visitor, the face of the Blessed Virgin is contorted in horror. Tears well from her widened eyes as she steps between two soldiers on a battlefield, grabbing a bayonet to halt its thrust. She’s depicted as a Croatian peasant, in a blue dress that’s pleated and embellished with a panel of folk embroidery, and with the fleshy hands, shoulders and breasts of a farm wife rather than with the delicate features generally given to Christ’s mother.

This “Holy Mother” is only one of more than 20 unique murals that cover the interior of tiny St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, transforming the demure Romanesque structure into a jewel box of cultural, political and artistic expression that’s gained it National and Pittsburgh Historic Landmark designations.

The murals were painted in 1937 and 1941 by Croatian artist Maxi-milian (Maxo) Vanka, the subject of an exhibition at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. They are considered by many to be his masterworks. Beginning Saturday, the center will offer tours that combine a walk through the exhibition with a bus trip to the murals.

In the small church that clings to the side of a hill, as do many of the workers’ homes in this former mill community, visitors will see both religious and secular imagery that addresses spiritual beliefs, cultural practice and man’s humanity or lack thereof.

Vanka often paired his subjects, and two of the most compelling scenes pay tribute to the Croatian parishioners: “The Croatian Mother Raises Her Son for War” and “The Immigrant Mother Raises Her Son for Industry.” In the former, a group of women in white garments keep watch over the lace-draped coffin of a young soldier. In the background, rows of white crosses angle toward an ominous sky.

The latter pointedly illustrates that life wasn’t easy in the land of promise, where immigrants often faced savage societal prejudices and dangerous working conditions. These women mourn the death of a son who died in a mine accident. It’s based on a true Johnstown event, and the family would lose three other sons in the same day during rescue efforts.

It’s not coincidental that the women are dressed like the blue-garbed “Holy Mother.” According to folklorist Frances Babic, in Christian Slavic folk tradition the women’s communal mourning of the dead assumes “a communion with another mother: Mary, Mother of God.”

Another dramatic and effective pairing is the idealized “Justice,” countered by the breathtakingly ominous, larger-than-life figure of “Injustice,” whose face is hidden beneath a gas mask. In one hand, she holds a bloodied sword and in the other scales which tip in favor of a pile of gold that outweighs a loaf of bread — symbolic of the body of Christ.

Vanka, in a Nov. 14, 1941, article in The Pittsburgh Press, said the inspiration for the work was Nazi occupation. “Hitler says march in, take all, go into Czechoslovakia, into Poland, into all countries. There is no justice today.”

The startling image of a woman chained to a cross represents the suffering peasant mother but is also allegorical for the oppressed, seized countries of Europe.

“The mother is enchained and crucified, because for one assassinated soldier they now kill hundreds,” Vanka explained. “At her feet is a destroyed church and town, and a jail, all bloody to show the cruelty. Hands are reaching through the bars of the jail, asking for help from the mother country, but she can do nothing.”

The mural commissions

The Rev. Albert Zagar was the pastor who commissioned the murals. When he contacted Vanka, an extraordinary collaboration began between two men of faith — a deeply spiritual artist and an unequivocally trusting priest.

Zagar’s only requirement was that some of the images be of a religious character.

Vanka complimented Zagar as the “only priest in 100,000 who is courageous enough to break with tradition, to have his church decorated with pictures of modern, social significance.”

Zagar and Vanka were both born in Yugoslavia and taught at the University of Zagreb, but they didn’t know one another. In America, they came together to produce visual aids that would help the Croatian immigrants cope with their longings for home while adjusting to their new country. By 1937, more than 50,000 Croats had settled in the Pittsburgh region.

Doris Dyen, a folklife specialist who’s now director of Cultural Conservation for the Steel Industry Heritage Corp., explored the dual role of such imagery in her paper “Aids to Adaptation: Southeast European Mural Painters in Pittsburgh,” which appeared in the Library of Congress’ “Folklife Annual 1990.”

Croatians, she said, “used religious beliefs and church affiliation as a tie to the Old Country and a way of adapting to the new. Iconography and the decorative arts … were particularly significant in the process of adaptation, affording as they did a wide range of symbolic expression, while also affirming traditional values.”

Dyen also speculates that Vanka may have seen the work of Diego Rivera. Certainly Vanka’s grandiosity and social content remind one of the great Mexican muralist, who was active at the time.

Vanka also combines aspects of folk and academic painting, bringing a variety of influences together to form what is mostly the passionate expression of one man.

‘The Gift of Sympathy’

Vanka was an illegitimate child of nobility, born in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1889, and taken to Croatian peasants to be raised, a common practice at the time. His birth connections did avail him later of a privileged education including studies at the Zagreb Royal Academy and the Royal Academy of Beaux Arts in Brussels, Belgium.

Contributing to his sensitive, observant and politicized nature were service with the Belgian Red Cross in World War I and an ethnographic expedition south of Zagreb. Vanka was an acclaimed portraitist and a professor at the Academy of Beaux Arts in Zagreb when he married Margaret Stetten, an American, in 1931. When the war closed in on Zagreb, the couple left for New York City, where they lived until their final move to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1941.

Vanka enjoyed traveling and visited many sites in the United States and abroad. He drowned while swimming off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in 1963.

The History Center exhibition, “The Gift of Sympathy: The Art of Maxo Vanka,” addresses his life and his artistic output, showing the range of stylistic and subject interests he had.

In 1990, the nonprofit Society for the Preservation of the Murals of St. Nicholas — Millvale was formed to support their care and conservation. For information, call 412-820-9292.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633