At one time the blackened, soot-stained skies of Pittsburgh were the promised land for thousands of immigrants. Fleeing poverty, persecution and famine, they willingly became cogs in the industrial machine because the mills and mines of Pittsburgh were still better than the dire conditions back home.
Perhaps no artist has ever captured the fear, struggle and faith of these immigrants as well as Croatian artist Maxo Vanka, whose greatest works cover the walls of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale.
To help preserve Vanka’s murals and design a climate control system to maintain them, the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka has been awarded a $471,670 Save America’s Treasures grant. The National Park Service administers Save America’s Treasures grants in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Vanka created two sets of murals in 1937 and 1941, while most of the world was engulfed in World War II.
They’re shockingly direct and powerful; in “Christ on the Battlefield,” a soldier stabs Jesus on the cross with a bayonet. In another, a tormented Mary bends the bayonets of attacking soldiers back. “Croatian Mother Raises Her Son for War” depicts women in Croatian mourning dress around a fallen youth. A spectral figure in a gas mask looms large, carrying a bloody sword and unbalanced scales personifying injustice.
Vanka, a pacifist, had served as a Red Cross volunteer in World War I, so he painted from experience. He worked quickly, sometimes completing a mural in four days. Time magazine even covered the story of Vanka’s Millvale murals as he painted them.
“Through private and public investments, the Save America’s Treasures program supports community-based preservation and conservation work on some of our nation’s most important collections, artifacts, structures, and sites for the benefit of future generations,” says National Park Service Director Chuck Sams.
“For decades, Maxo Vanka’s murals have captivated and inspired countless southwestern Pennsylvanians, as well as visitors from all over,” says Senator Bob Casey. “These murals deserve to be restored and preserved so that people can enjoy them for generations to come.”
Since 1991, the Society has conserved the murals, as well as provided the church with dedicated, museum-quality lighting for the art that was designed by Pittsburgh-based studio Clear Story. It also provides public access to the murals through docent-led tours (both private and on Saturdays), as well as educational programming and community outreach surrounding the themes of the works.