Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Documentary Tells Story of Vanka's 'Masterpiece'

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Documentary Tells Story of Vanka's 'Masterpiece'

Article excerpt

If St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church were in Europe instead of Millvale, it would be on all the bus tours for its culture, its history and its remarkable art.

The modest church perches on a hill across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, protectively overlooking the homes of its parishioners and the once steel-rich valley that drew and employed them. What makes it a unique destination is its interior, covered with imagery, predictably religious but also surprisingly political.

In the documentary "Maxo Vanka's Masterpiece: The Murals at St. Nicholas Church," Pittsburgh filmmaker Kenneth Love tells the story of those images, beginning in 1937. The film will be screened at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Regent Square Theater during the Three Rivers Film Festival. Mr. Love will attend.

St. Nicholas' pastor, the Rev. Albert Zagar (who died in 1966), commissioned Vanka to bring life to the church's bare walls, giving the artist a free hand as long as some of the murals had religious themes. Vanka (1889-1963) had been a successful artist in Croatia but moved to New York City in 1934 with his Jewish-American wife and their daughter when fascism began its march through Europe.

For the church's rededication in June 1937, he completed 11 large murals in just eight weeks, often working from 11 a.m. until 2 the next morning, barely stopping for breaks. The early murals showed the linkage between the parishioners, their homeland and their beliefs, as when Vanka clothed the Virgin Mary in Croatian garb.

By 1941, Croatia had fallen to the Nazis, and the artist returned to finish the commission with a broken heart. A pacifist, he had served with the Red Cross during World War I and had seen the war's savagery firsthand. He poured his grief and anger into images such as Mother Croatia chained to a cross and a soldier bayoneting the crucified Christ.

Mary Petrich, a parishioner and one of the docents who now give tours of the murals, says there are three major themes reflected in Vanka's St. …

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