Maxo Vanka was an extraordinary painter with an amazing life. Two sojourns in 1937 and 1941 in Millvale produced one of the most expressive works of immigrant art in America. The murals that fill the Croatian church of St. Nicholas encompass in one magnificent ensemble both mystical religious aspirations and horrifying depictions of war and injustice. Rich in symbolism and imagery, the murals provide a powerful expression of religious spirituality as well as a profound social commentary. In 1921, the original Millvale church burned down and was replaced. When Father Albert Zagar became pastor in 1931, he began to look for a muralist to decorate the structure’s stark white walls.
Maxo Vanka was born in 1889, the illegitimate child of high Austro-Hungarian imperial nobility. Raised by a peasant woman, his education was sponsored in Zagreb and then in 1914 at the Royal Academy of Beaux Arts in Brussels, Belgium, where he witnessed the horrors of the war at close hand during the German invasion. He married an American and came to New York in 1934. In March of 1937, Vanka came to Millvale to meet Father Zagar and was commissioned to paint the church. In two sessions in 1937 and 1941, Vanka covered the church with twenty-two murals, starting with the dominating figure over the altar, Mary Queen of Croatia, a forceful strong-shouldered peasant queen with worker’s hands holding her son who carries grapes and wheat.
Opposite Vanka’s version of the Pieta, Mary holding her dead son brought down from the cross, is the painting: The Immigrant Mother Raises Her Son for Industry. Vanka explained that the image came “from a disaster near Johnstown where seventy-two men were trapped in an explosion. The body of this son was the first brought to the surface. The mother is sorrowing over him while at the same time sending his three brothers into the mine with a rescue expedition. It actually happened that she lost all four sons.” In the back of the church, contrasting murals depict the simple meal of the Croatian family, with the ghostly figure of Christ blessing their bread and soup, with the feast spread out before the Capitalist – a banker with monocle and top-hat waited on by a Negro servant - while a poor man begs for crumbs at the foot of his table.