On New Year’s Eve, the electricity in my family’s home in Pittsburgh flickered ominously and then, went dark. In the distance, orange and pink lights flashed vibrantly like strobe lights in the sky, as a buzzing sound, reminiscent of Dean Hurley’s ever-present static bursts in Twin Peaks: The Return, echoed furiously. If the impromptu disco light show wasn’t enough, there also appeared to be a smoke machine, as a plume bellowed from down the street, possibly coming from a Chipotle in a former Radio Shack.
But burritos and defunct electronic stores were the farthest things from my mind. Sweet Jesus! He was here! The Angel of Injustice, adorned in a black cloak, wearing a matching black gas mask. Holding a blood-soaked sword in one hand and tipped scales of money and bread in the other, Injustice was coming! And we were going to plead at his feet, just like the hands on the mural of Injustice painted by Croatian artist Maxo Vanka.
Fine. My William Blake-esque ecstatic vision on New Year’s Eve didn’t come from nowhere. It wasn’t simply a bubbly-induced, blown transformer-inspired panic attack. It was a hangover from visiting Maxo Vanka’s superb, scary, and sublime murals on the walls of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale (pronounced in correct Pittsburghese as something like MIWHL-vuyhwl) a few days earlier for an evening holiday tour.
Despite being a well-attended tour, I don’t think I’m exaggerating by asserting these murals are not widely known outside of the Pittsburgh area, even within art circles. Hell. I don’t even think they’re that well known within the Pittsburgh area. This is partially because most Pittsburghers don’t leave their immediate neighborhoods (trust me, I grew up there). But the murals certainly should be considered benchmarks in both religious and mural painting and an art historical pilgrimage site for the city of Pittsburgh. Not to say Pittsburgh doesn’t have copious other religious meccas like, for example, the sculpture of Our Saint of the Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris, at the Pittsburgh airport that has been turned into a posthumous shrine with devotional Terrible Towels:
Steelers worship aside, from the aforementioned Angel Injustice to Christ and flame-haired angels hovering over the congregation on the domed ceiling to numerous representations of mothers grieving over their dead sons, Vanka’s murals at St. Nicholas are awe-inspiring tributes to the immigrant experience and revolutionary anti-capitalist and anti-war politics, all wrapped in the universality of biblical imagery. Yes, my immediate response to the murals was: “Fuck. Nick Cave would love this.” And another yes, I already sent him the website on The Red Hand Files.
But before delving into the murals, a bit of light history. St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church was built in 1900 as a church for the local Croatian immigrant community, many of whom lived across the Allegheny River in the now hipster (yes, Pittsburgh still has hipsters) neighborhood of Lawrenceville. Located at the top of a towering hill overlooking Downtown (Dahn-Tahn), the Church itself is an architectural marvel, particularly for a humble immigrant church in Western Pennsylvania. In 1921, St Nicholas suffered a fire, leaving the walls a dull blank white. Bo-ring! The Church’s priest, Father Zagar, eventually commissioned artist Maxo Vanka, whose work Zagar discovered at Vanka’s 1935 solo exhibition in Pittsburgh’s Oakland, to paint murals for the church. Vanka completed the murals in two main stages: the first in 1937 and the second in 1941, along with a later smaller segment of the choir loft that he finished in 1951. Beginning in 2009, The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka came together to conserve the murals, which had been damaged in Hurricane Ivan and Francis in 2004. The conservation is still in process hence the tours–like the one I attended–help fund the ongoing effort.
Now, Vanka wasn’t exactly a conventional choice for the St. Nicholas muralist. First, he wasn’t a muralist at all. The murals of St. Nicholas would be his first and only mural project. Second, he wasn’t Catholic. Vanka was vaguely “spiritual” maybe, but not religious of any organized denomination. Third, he wasn’t from the Pittsburgh area either, living, at the time, in New York City after marrying a Jewish American doctor Margaret Stetten and getting the hell out of Croatia in 1934 when things started to take a fascist turn. It’s worth noting Maxo was also a bit of an odd duck, donning blinders constructed out of newspaper to avoid seeing, what he believed, was a ghost in the church while creating the murals. What was in that paint?!
Spooky specter or fume-driven hallucination, Vanka did have a unique upbringing, the influence of which is visible on the walls of St. Nicholas, which reads as a love letter to the working class. Born in 1889, Maxo was the illegitimate son of Austrian nobility who was sent to live with a peasant family, as apparently was common at the time. Raised by a beloved peasant mother, he was later discovered and claimed by his maternal grandfather who brought him back into the fold of privilege. Yet, it seems that his connection and fondness for the lower classes remained. Take, for instance, the monumental representation of the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus, entitled Mary, Queen of Croatia, that looms from behind the altar. At first glance, this depiction of the Virgin and Child seems mostly inspired by classical Catholic painting. But, on closer inspection, rather than ornate garments, Mary wears a simple dress that resembles the ones worn by the peasant women in the mural beneath her, portraying the pastoral Old Country and the New World with Pittsburgh’s steel mill-caused perpetual night skies. Mary also poses with her legs open, Mary-spreading, if you will, which is not exactly the pious and pure position we’re used to from The Virgin. Mary is a bit trashy and rough around the edges, just how we like our mothers in Pittsburgh!
Like ginormous peasant Mary, the murals, particularly from 1937, take motherhood as their theme, particularly mothers grieving their sons. In the back of the nave, two murals showcase a mother and other women gathered to mourn a son who died in war (Croatian Mother Raises Her Son For War), a reference to Maxo’s own experience witnessing World War I as a Red Cross medic, and in an industrial accident in a mine (Immigrant Mother Gives Her Sons for American Industry). In both cases, young men are sacrificed for geopolitical and industrial hubris, leaving women to suffer in their wake. Just like Mary and her sorrows who Maxo uses as a symbol for these 20th-century women in his more traditional depictions of The Crucifixion and The Pietà.
Though The Crucifixion and The Pietà are pretty conventional, along with portraits of The Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, certain details are strikingly surreal, such as the angels holding the nails and crown of thorns while standing on celestial bodies in The Pietà. This surrealism becomes downright frightening in the adjacent scenes representing the Old and New Testaments. On the Old, The Hand of God (Hand of God! Hand of God!) points down to Moses as he, with an alarming thousand-yard stare, holds up a tablet reading “Thou Shalt Not Kill” in Croatian. On the New, Jesus hands Peter his spare keys to the Kingdom as—my favorite part of all the murals—the all-seeing Eye of God with the pupil of a dove stares down surrounded by psychedelic angels as if a lost Dalí painting.
Between 1937 and 1941, the murals shift slightly in theme, becoming more blatantly anti-war and anti-fascist (Maxo was ANTIFA!!!) as the Ustaše took over Croatia during World War II. Maxo’s anti-war stance is, uh, not subtle. Beyond the terrifying Angel of Injustice who haunts my nightmares, Maxo painted a similar staggering portrait of Mati, meaning motherland, an allegorical mother figure who lies draped and chained over a cross, crying tears of blood. If that was too symbolic for you, Mati gazes at two kick-ass battle scenes with Mary and Jesus on the cross, appearing mid-warfare. Though zombie Jesus is certainly arresting, my favorite is battle-tested Mary who snaps off a soldier’s bayonet, while grabbing another soldier’s gun in her other hand. And just look at her eyes. Mary is pissed!
This new focus on war, however, doesn’t mean that Maxo abandoned his anti-capitalist principles in 1941. In fact, his distaste and disgust for the wealthy may be even more overt, particularly with The Capitalist. The Capitalist is a gaunt, black-eyed man who is served a lavish dinner for one by a Black servant, while he ignores a beggar, preferring to, instead, become engrossed in pouring over the stock report. If The Capitalist’s vacuous dead eyes weren’t enough of an indicator that this money-grubbing asshole is damned, the angels in this mural turn away from him. The Capitalist is contrasted with The Simple Family Meal, a humble meal of shared bread and soup featuring Jesus as a drop-in dinner guest.
Surrounded by these murals, it’s hard not to come away with the conclusion that Maxo Vanka’s masterpiece—this Sistine Chapel of Pittsburgh—is a prime example of, dare I say, radical art. Now, I know we live in a time when each and every artist lays claim to radicality. Just step into any international art survey exhibition, like the current Carnegie International (more on that later). Or look at any left-leaning art publication and you’ll instantly find numerous articles with “Radical” in the title. But, most of this art is often not radical at all. In fact, it’s typically the kind of limp “political” work that’s meant to critique in a fashion that makes wealthy people feel better about themselves while sitting comfortably sequestered within institutions.
In contrast, Maxo’s potent and poignant social justice-driven artworks firmly reject the presumed conservatism of religious imagery and importantly endured on the walls of a practicing Catholic church for decades rather than in a museum. The mind reels at the thought of generations of Pittsburghers sitting and worshipping beneath these wild visions. What did they think about the critique of American industry and capitalism? Were they as startled by the Angel of Injustice’s gas mask as I am? And what about Rambo Mary? Did she give anyone pause at the precipice of all the many conflicts America has meddled in within the past 80+ years?
And I’m not the only one who wonders. David Byrne, in a visit to Pittsburgh, said of the murals, “Bold and brave stuff to confront the Sunday parishioners with.” Indeed. But, it would be a mistake to only consider Maxo’s murals in the context of confrontation. They’re decidedly made to speak for and to the working-class Croatian immigrant community. It’s not some rich people bullshit like a lot of particularly Christian artwork, like the commissioned art groveling at the feet of the royals as seen in the Met’s recent The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England exhibition. Instead, these murals were for a community that suffered like the people in these murals suffered and that would transcend as these murals transcend.