St. Nicholas Church was originally built in an area densely packed with iron manufactures, saw works, lumber mills and breweries as the first Croatian Catholic church in United States. During the late 19th century, 50,000 Croatian immigrants came to Pittsburgh looking for work in these burgeoning industries.
The first church to St Nicholas burnt down in 1921, but was rebuilt three years later. The structure was complete, but the walls were bare --- a far cry from European decorative traditions. In 1929, Father Albert Zagar, a Franciscan priest from Slovenia was assigned to the parish. Coming from an order famous for using art to preach and church walls as pulpits, Father Zagar immediately thought of decoration, but was lacking not only funds, but a worthy artist.
Providence decreed that Socialist author Louis Adamic would unite the priest and his painter. In 1935, Father Zagar was introduced to Maxo Vanka, a Croatian immigrant artist living in New York. Vanka was born in Zagreb in 1889, moved to Belgium to study art, and after having served as a Red Cross ambulance driver at the front during World War I, he moved to America 1934 and married Margaret Stettan of New York.
In 1937, Vanka agreed to decorate the church with mural paintings in tempera. St. Nicholas would be the one and only mural commission of this artist, who produced mostly portraits and panel paintings. With a first eight week effort, he covered half the church, and in 1941 he returned to complete the work. Every wall was covered by his brush, a sort of Sistine chapel of this remarkable artist.
Like Michelangelo, Vanko did several playful sketches of himself working on the scaffolds, where he used almost no assistants. The program was the fruit of conversations between Father Zagar and Vanka, as well as a deep understanding of the Croatian culture, Christianity and the trials of their own age.
Father Zagar was already thinking about these murals in 1934, three years after Pope Pius XI’s encyclical "On the Reconstruction of the Social Order," which reiterated themes from Pope Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum." These encyclicals are the foundation of Catholic social teaching, especially regarding the worker in an industrialized society.
These papal teachings seem to have found their illustration in the murals of Maxo Vanka. The paintings are like the Bible, an encyclical and a newspaper rolled into one.
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For many years I have heard of the legendary Malcolm Miller who read the Chartres Cathedral with a familiarity born of years and years of daily study. I always dreamed of what it must have been like to meet him before he was legend, to just walk in the church and find someone who knew every inch of the space.
In St. Nicholas, I met such a person, Mary Petrich, who in her own words, "has been looking at these murals for 72 years." A parishioner of St. Nicholas since her childhood, Petrich loves the art of her church as the Franciscans love Giotto’s Assisi murals. Rolling out movie lights to allow us to see every detail, she starts by focusing illuminating the altar where, 36 feet high, Mary, Mother of Croatia, floats in the apse under an invocation to "pray for us."
Petrich encourages the visitor to see the walls speaking to and complementing each other in the great tradition of European fresco cycles. She points out a Croatian theme of nature in the apse, country dress and simple picnic in front of sown fields, and on the other side, there is the busy town of Millvale, industrial steam billowing with the promise of prosperity. Field workers on the one side face the miners on the other extolling the virtue of work. Two men in the Croatian field reappear among the miners, a tribute to the thousands of Croatian immigrants.
But both Croatia and industrialized America have known hardship, and the striking altars to the Crucifixion and the Pieta prepare us with the suffering of Christ and His mother, the Church. Mothers are a principal theme in the art: they are never frail, but always powerful, sturdy and steadfast.
Facing these altars are two striking images, the first called "The Croatian Mother Raises her Son for War," showing a group of women weeping over the body of a young man killed in battle. The landscape is filled with graves with room for more. Opposite, Vanko painted The Croatian Mother Raises her Son for Industry, commemorating a mine explosion where 72 miners were trapped. Vanko gives voice to the voiceless, protesting a situation where out of 500,000 miners in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, 64,000 died a year. The Church always arranges special tours on May 1, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker.
The second series, painted during World War II, illustrate Vanko's horror of war. The low ceiling of the entrance of the church almost crushes the visitor with the image of Mary, standing among warring soldiers and next to it, a crucified Christ, His chest peppered with gunshot and a soldier about to plunge a bayonet into his burning heart. Both Mary and Jesus’ eyes are extraordinarily large, a reminder of the cruelty and barbarism seen over this past century.
Powerful images of war and death, injustice and suffering are nonetheless tempered with gentle touches of nature. Flowers grow amid barbed wire, blossoms spring up on a battlefield, evoking Benedict XVI’s 2007 encyclical "Spes Salvi," "In Hope We are Saved."
Mary Petrich points out adorable details (a rabbit peeking from a corner), but always keeps at the forefront the great message of the art, the intersection Christ, Mary, the Church, and his flock, struggling through different ages and challenges following Christ’s message.
Petrich closes her tour with an observation and a question, "These murals always challenge me, as in the prophet Micah (6:8 ) 'What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.'"
The astonishing walls of St. Nicholas Church provoke, inspire and commemorate. Both specific to their age and yet timeless, they are the very definition of a masterpiece of Christian art.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org