Monday, September 22, 2014

Maxo Vanka Murals

Justice, Croatian Church of St. Nicholas, Millvale, PA, 2014

Atop a steep hill in a Pittsburgh neighborhood just north of the city, sits a small church built by immigrant steelworkers in 1900.  The church itself is unremarkable architecturally.  Your eye could sweep over the landscape and never come to rest upon it.  But inside the church there are murals painted by Maxo Vanka on every available bit of wall and ceiling space.  The most astounding murals I have ever seen in a place of worship.  The first part of the mural was painted in 1937, just as Hitler was preparing to lead the world into hell, again, and then the murals were finished in 1941, with the world at war. 
Vanka himself was an agnostic, which leads one to wonder how he was allowed, and encouraged, by this small church to create such shattering imagery in a place of worship.  Born in Croatia in 1889, he'd served in the Belgian Red Cross during WWI, witnessing firsthand the brutality and suffering of war.  While not a socialist, he definitely was not a capitalist either, wedding many religious and social themes together in these murals to highlight the plight of millworkers and miners, men perishing on the job the same as a soldier dies on the battlefield.  The common man losing his life for the will of forces and powers that he could never hope to influence.
The experience of viewing these murals is nothing short of visceral.  Whether it's the Mother Mary breaking bayonets with her bare hands, or an industrialist going over his ledgers at the dinner table while children beg for food, each scene demands your attention. 
There are guided tours of the murals every Saturday at 11am, noon, and 1pm.  Don't miss it.

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