The Grieving Mother, The Old Country and Social Injustice
The Milvale Murals of Maxo Vanka
By Emily O’Donnell
Written for The Original Magazine: Issue 12 (2013)
Atop a steep cliff, the church sits quietly looming over the constant construction and noise of cars that fill route 28. Located on the fringes of Milvale, it is easy to pass by when traveling to Mr. Small’s or en route to the Waterworks in Fox Chapel. Although it holds few services, St. Nicholas Church is well known for the vivid murals that stretch over the walls and ceilings of the church. Many churches have beautiful artwork, but the murals at St. Nicholas are different and extraordinary in their themes and execution.
Travel back to 1889 when the artist, Maxo Vanka was born in Croatia. His story begins like a fairy tale; he was the illegitimate son of Hasburg nobility and was given up by his parents to live with peasants for the first eight years of his life. When his grandfather discovered Vanka’s existence, he took the boy from the life of a peasant and brought him to a palace to live in luxury. Vanka went on to study art at some of the finest art schools in Europe and went on to work as a portraitist, painting fine portraits with oil on canvas. The influence of his early years never left him, however, and he continued to empathize with the plight of the peasants and the common people, a fact that is well illustrated in his work on the murals at St. Nicholas Church.
Inherent in the paintings are three predominant themes that were important to Vanka himself, and what he believed was important for religion to address. The first is the theme of the strong mother, who often appears as the grieving mother. In a large mural that stretches above the church pulpit, an image of Mary is painted with the child Christ. Unlike other depictions, this is not a demure Mary. She is painted with strength and determination in her gaze. Mary is depicted here as the Queen of Heaven, a crown on her brow. Her body is stocky and thick, much like the peasant women that Vanka knew as a child. This particular depiction of Mary was based on Dora, the peasant woman who raised Vanka for the first eight years of his life. Her enduring strength and power is reflected in the figure of Mary, the holiest of women in the Catholic Church.
The second theme that was important to Maxo Vanka and is portrayed in the murals is the contrast between the old country and the new country. As an immigrant, this was integral to Vanka’s life. He came to the United States after marrying a Jewish-American woman, the decision was a difficult one for him as he loved his homeland of Croatia but detested the condition of life for many in his home country. In his murals, he depicts the old country as pastoral, peasants in the field working and praying. The new country is America and is depicted with some cynicism. His depiction of America is full of the smoke of the industrial revolution. Mary Petrich is a docent at the St. Nicholas Church, who has been giving tours of the murals for 13 years. She states that the immigrants “when they came to the United States, they were told the streets were made of gold. Of course they weren’t.”
The third theme that perisists throughout Vanka’s work is that of social injustice. Maxo Vanka was a noted pacifist, and when World War I broke out in Europe, he served as a member of the Red Cross. He would not fight in battle, his job included clearing dead bodies from the field and the mark that they left on his psyche was indelible. These dead bodies and broken figures recur in his work on the murals. On corresponding walls of the church, there are two corresponding paintings that deal with this theme. The first is titled “Croatian Mother Raises Her Son For War.” It depicts a soldier returning home from war in a casket. He is surrounded by grieving women wearing a white habit, similar to a nun’s habit, but in reality these white dresses are traditional mourning clothes for Croatian mothers. The graveyard beyond the women and the body of the young man is filled with crosses, for those who have died in war. There is an empty expanse of space in the graveyard, awaiting the crosses of young men who will die in future wars. The dead body of the young men has an arm missing from one of the sleeves, indicating that he had already lost limbs before he lost his life. Mary Petrich speaks eloquently about the theme of this painting, “What greater social injustice is there than war?” She asks, “How many young men come back from war now with empty sleeves, empty pant legs, empty hearts and empty heads?”
On the corresponding wall there is a matching painting titled “Croatian Mother Prepares Her Son For Industry.” Whereas the previous painting was set in the old country of Croatia, this painting is set in the new country, specifically in Johnstown, Pennylvania and tells a true story. A young man lies dead with grieving women around him once more. In the distance, a coal mine is on fire and the brothers of the young man are headed into the mine in attempt to save the lives of those trapped inside. None of them will come out alive.
Vanka first began work on the murals in 1937. He worked day and night, Petrich recalls watching him work as a child when she attended the St. Nicholas school next to the church. “I would come in at 8 am for class and he would be working, he would work until 2 am. Sometimes, he would enlist Father Zagar – the priest who commissioned Vanka to paint the murals – to mix paint for him… Most of these murals were completed in only eight weeks.” There are twenty-two murals in St. Nicholas church and eleven of them were painted in the span of eight weeks in 1937. Maxo Vanka returned to the church in 1941 to paint the remaining eleven murals and in that time, World War 2 began and influenced Vanka’s work drastically. There is a stark difference between the 1937 and the 1941 murals. Although all of the paintings deal with the same three themes, in his later murals it is the final theme of social injustice that is most prevalent in Vanka’s work.
In one painting called “Mother 1941,” there is another of Vanka’s strong female figures hung with chains on a cross, her head bowed low. Mary Petrich describes this painting with a different title, “Mother Croatia on the Cross.” This painting was Vanka’s emotional tribute to his motherland, at that time caught up in the chains of facism. Two interlocking paintings show “Prudence” and “Justice” as matching angels. The figure of Prudence holds up one finger to its mouth. Petrich explains that the angel is warning the immigrants of the new country to keep quiet so they would not be discriminated against in America for their accent at a time when suspicions of foreigners were at their height.
The most foreboding figure in the entire church is the painting opposite the figure of Justice. The painting titled “Injustice” features a large figure holding a bloody sword, wearing bloody gloves and most notably, wearing a gas mask.
“Who does it look like to you?” Mary Petrich asks. She laughs softly, despite the seriousness of the image. “Children come in and tell me it looks just like Darth Vader.” In a way, the gas mask of Injustice does resemble the heavy helmet of Vader. But there is gravity to the image that no childlike comparisons can undo.
The final paintings that Vanka completed in 1941 are actually the first that visitors might notice when walking into the church. Stretching across the low ceiling at the entrance of the church are several murals that vividly depict the horrors of war. In one painting, two soldiers are in the midst of killing each other, one French and one German. In between them is the figure of Christ on the cross, being stabbed by one of the soldier’s bayonets. Petrich says, “In killing someone unjustly, you are killing Christ.”
The opposing painting once again features the strong figure of Mary that has been recurrent throughout so much of Vanka’s work. This powerful figure is in the midst of a battlefield, her large peasant hands gripping the weapons of the soldiers and attempting to turn them away from one another. The holy mother becomes the grieving mother of Vanka’s work as she struggles to keep her children from destroying one another in the horrors of war.
These murals are unlike any religious paintings that are typically found in a church. It is notable that Maxo Vanka himself was not a Catholic or a religious man. He was an agnostic with strong morals and deeply held beliefs of pacifism and justice. These murals are not easy on the eyes or easy to accept. They challenge every viewer who walks in through the doors of the church, but it is a necessary challenge for many who have become too complacent in their religious beliefs, for those who find it too easy to turn a blind eye to the social injustice that Vanka sought to bring to light.
Mary Petrich concludes her tour with the following words: “I am 85 years old and I have known these murals for a long time. So what do they mean to me? These are not comforting murals, they are very disquieting. They are a challenge, are they not? So what am I challenged to do? In the words of Micah, from the Jewish scriptures, I am challenged to ‘act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with my God.’ Do I always do it? I don’t think so. But in the words of G.K. Chesterton: ‘Christianity hasn’t failed, it hasn’t been tried.’ So we have to keep on trying.”
St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church is located at 24 Maryland Ave., Pittsburgh PA
Mary Petrich leads tours on Saturdays at 12pm, 1pm and 2pm.
For more information visit www.vankamurals.org