Pittsburgh is one of those places that doesn’t have a lot of attractions and landmarks readily known outside of the city or even the surrounding area. But that’s why discovering a place like the Carrie Blast Furnace make visiting it so worthwhile. And that’s exactly how I would describe the Vanka Murals, the Sistine Chapel of Western Pennsylvania.
I don’t remember when I first heard about them, but they had been on my Pittsburgh to do list for quite some time. Found in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale (just down the river from Pittsburgh, and as you guessed by its name, once home to numerous mills), the murals are probably the most unknown attraction here in the Pittsburgh area. Although I had seen St. Nicholas Church countless times when driving by, I didn’t know that such a spectacular gem was found inside of it.
The Vanka Murals are the work of a Croatian artist, Maksimilijan “Maxo” Vanka. Born in Croatia in 1889, he saw the ravages of war firsthand when the Great War erupted all across Europe. As he was a pacifist, he didn’t fight but rather served in the Belgian Red Cross. He eventually immigrated to America in the 1930s with his wife and daughter when the tides of war had once again reached Europe’s shores.
St. Nicholas Catholic Church was the first Croatian Catholic parish in America when it was established in 1894. Although a devastating fire destroyed the original building in 1921, a new one was erected the following year. It was the parish priest at the time, Father Albert Zagar, who ended up contracting Maxo to paint the interior walls of the church in 1937.
I think the first thing you’ll notice upon entering the church is the immense size of the murals. There are 25 in all. Maxo truly didn’t leave any space blank (they take up 4500 square feet). Where there was wall, he created art. Our guide called them the Sistine Chapel of Pittsburgh and in many ways they truly are. Just as with Michelangelo, it is astounding that the murals are all the work of one man, and even more astounding was learning how fast he “churned” them out (he did all 25 during two periods, the first in 1937, the second in 1941).
The mural that greets you first due to its size and location is the one entitled “Mary, Queen of Croatia and Arch.” I found it fascinating to hear how Maxo depicted her to look Croatian between the traditional Croatian colors and even her hands (they’re hardly the small, delicate hands that the Virgin Mary usually is shown as having).
Being a lover of immigrant history, my favorite murals are probably the “Pastoral Croatia” and “Croatians in America” which are side by side (save for the altar that separates them). These can be described as before and after type scenes; the first shows the Croatians still in the Old Country wearing their traditional attire, and then in America, when they’ve become more assimilated.
The thing I found most surprising about the murals is some of their very dark and graphic content, not what you would typically find in a church, including scenes of war, the effects of industrialization (the prevalent loss of life as a result of working in mills and mines), and even one entitled “Injustice” depicting an angel wearing a gas mask, holding a bloodied sword and a scale that is clearly unbalanced.
I’ve seen the famous Diego Rivera murals in Mexico City’s Palacio Nacional and while the Vankas are not as well-known, they are still equally impressive as well as significant. Whether you come from near or afar, make plans to visit the Vanka Murals one day. You will be glad you did.
For more information on the murals and visiting, click here.