Thursday, August 25, 2011
eightieth visit: Aug 22nd 2011 Roman Catholicism (murals)
St Nicholas Croation Catholic Parish
Maxo (Maksimilijan) Vanka's murals
24 Maryland Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15209
Nearly two years ago, another artist I know visited this Millvale church for a tour of Maxo Vanko's murals. This was before gatherings was even an blip in my mind. She highly recommended. "The murals, the tour was so great, perfect—everything about it. Even the fact that the tour guide's name is Mary."
I had been saving this visit, trying to maintain an even sprinkling of landmark-Pgh-classic-visits in the flow. Finally, I give Mary a call. I ask if it's possible to have a tour after a Wednesday morning Mass. She tactfully suggests that I sign up for a Monday instead. Though Mass is not offered on Mondays, she hopes that this may be alright with me. "See, on Monday," she explains, "I have already agreed to give a tour to a photographer from out of state. I'm 83, you know, and it would just be easier for me that way." Agreed.
I arrive. The photographer is not present. Instead two other tour-goers. And also Mary, of course, but only for a short while. Between our phone conversation a couple of weeks ago and this morning, Mary has officially retired from her tour guide duties. We listen to her give final advice to Bill, who is to permanently take her place, and we watch her ceremoniously hand the church keys to him.
Bill grew up in Millvale. After obtaining a degree in art history, he lived for 30 years in New York City, and gave tours at the Frick Collection there, before recently settling once again in the Pittsburgh area. (Which is, ironically, the Frick family's homeland as well.) Today he is providing his very first tour of the Maxo Vanko murals at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church.
These murals were not created simply for the sake of beauty in worship, and they go beyond the usual narratives and ideas of Catholicism. Vanka, who was born in 1889 and immigrated to Pittsburgh as a result of this commission, began the murals in 1937 and then returned again to the project in 1941.
The parish priest at the time gave Vanka very specific perimeters to follow regarding the painting behind the main front alter, but beyond that, the design and content of those on the remaining three walls and ceiling were left completely up to his artistic discretion.
Though they do address religious content, Vanka's 1937 murals are very much about the immigration experience, specifically that of Croatians. The paintings executed in 1941 directly address the atrocities of WWII—gas masks, death, religious persecution and all. Want to know more? Oh, too many words can ruin things sometimes. You'll just have to see for yourself.