Pittsburgh Art Places


St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church

Related Links


Croatia, Church, Millvale, Rhor

Artwork Type

Integrated, Mural, Permanent, Social Practice

St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church Murals, 1937 and 1941

Maksimilijan (Maxo) Vanka


Nicknames Millvale Murals
Commissioning Entity St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church
Owner St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church

Walking into this church, perched high above Route 28, one can’t help but be floored by the paintings on the wall. Yes, there are some scenes that are expected in a Catholic church: images of the Madonna and Child, the Pieta, and a crucifixion scene. But there is nothing traditional, even about these images. Maxo Vanka created images that would be more relatable to the Croatian working-class parishioners who sat in the pews weekly during the Great Depression. The monumental Madonna and Child in the apse, for example, are adorned in Croatian textiles and framed by an arch etched with Croatian text; the model for Christ on the cross, too, was a WPA worker from the community.

Throughout the church, Vanka bridges the “old” world in Croatia and the “new” world in America. To the left of the altar, Croatian peasants in traditional dress pray the “The Angelus” in an open field. To the right of the altar, Croatian immigrants in overalls and carrying lunch pails and pick axes present a model of St. Nicholas church to the Madonna. An industrial landscape looms in the background. In the foreground, Father Zagar, the man who commissioned Vanka to paint these murals, kneels and presents the workers and the church to the Holy Mother. 

Next to the images of Jesus, Mary, the saints and evangelists are a set of images of social justice and the struggles of the laboring class that are unparalleled in church painting. To the left and the right of the choir loft, Vanka presents two jarring images: Croatian Mothers Give Their Sons to War, on the left, and Immigrant Mothers Give their Sons to Industry. Sadly, the latter image, of a young miner dead from an industrial accident, was likely a familiar image to the parishioners of the 1930s. On the ceiling under the choir, and above your head as you enter the church, Vanka shows a terrified Christ on the cross being bayonetted by soldiers, as the Holy Mother intervenes between two soldiers on the battlefield.  On the far left wall, Vanka painted one of the most striking images: A gas-masked and red-eyed female figure representing Injustice, who holds a bloodied sword and the scales of justice, which are dramatically off balance, a damning testament of the inequities in the world. Though painted over 70 years ago, Vanka’s statement remains relevant to many of the issues we face today. 

By Sylvia Rhor, Ph.D.


The Murals of Maxo Vanka, St. Nicholas Croatian Church, Millvale, PA: http://www.vankamurals.org/

The Gift of Sympathy: The Art of Maxo Vanka, James A Michener Museum, 2001.

Dr. Sylvia Rhor is Associate Professor of Art History at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pa. She has written extensively about murals, the history of museum education, and political cartoons. Her doctoral research was the first full-length study of the historic mural collection in Chicago Public Schools. Recently, she published “The Evolution of the Chicago School Mural Movement” in The Decorated School: Essays in the Visual Culture of Schooling (Black Dog Press, 2013), and she co-authored, “Shaping Spaces/Shaping Publics: A Short History of Mural Painting in the United States” in The Companion to Public Art (Blackwell Press, forthcoming). Her current research focuses on the early 20th century labor murals in Pittsburgh. 


Maxo Vanka was born in 1889 in Croatia, the illegitimate son of a Croatian aristocrat. He studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Croatia, and became a well-known portraitist of the aristocratic class in his homeland. He exhibited throughout Europe, and was awarded the gold medal of King Albert in 1914. Vanka, like so many other artists of that time, fled fascist Europe in the 1930s. With his American wife, Vanka emigrated to the United States in 1934. Though a professed atheist, Vanka was called to St. Nicholas Church by Father Alfred Zagar in 1937 to paint these murals. He painted in two feverish stints in 1937 and 1941. Vanka settled in Bucks County, Pa and founded the art department at the Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture in New Britain, PA. He died in 1963 in Mexico.