Saturday, December 10, 2011

Murals of St. Nicholas (Croat)

The first Croat parish in America is St. Nicholas in Millvale (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania. In 1921 a new church was built after a fire. Ten years later the new pastor, Fr. Albert Zagar, wanted the bare walls painted. The painter of some twenty murals was Maxo Vanka *1889, 1963† believed by some to be the bastard son of the once heir apparent (Rudolf Habsburg) to the Austrian emperor. Vanka grew up in rural Croatia, and enlisted in the Belgian Red Cross. The pastor, Fr. Albert Zagar had met Vanka, who arrived in America in 1934.

Some of the paintings, such as the four evangelists, and Francis of Assisi cause no surprise. Some do. A first set of paintings, Vanka did in eight weeks in 1937. A second set in 1941, some of which were very anti-Hitlerian, anti-fascist, anti-war.
Vanka told the Pittsburgh Press, "Hitler says march in, take all, go into Czechoslovakia, into Poland, into all countries. There is no justice today."

Under the choir loft there are these twin murals. Vanka had been a pacifist before the Great War. He saw the fighting and killing as evil, and the deaths very shattering to the community of people. With the same empathy, he saw greed as its equal.
Maxo Vanka. The Croatian Mother Raises Her Son for War. 1937. Pittsburgh.
The communal weeping of the women is like those of the Three Maries at the Cross.
Maxo Vanka. The Immigrant Mother Raises Her Son for Industry. 1937. Pittsburgh.

a reflection of a Johnstown mining disaster that killed 112 in 1902
sometimes called, 'The Madonna of the Monongahela'
Several of the paintings contrast idyllic, organic, Croat, peasant society with the exploited and harsh life of the immigrant in industrial America. Over the high altar is Mary, the Mother of God, in Croat national dress. There are pair of Croat community religious life, in the old country, and the new.

In a Crucifixion scene, Jesus is bayoneted by a soldier in WW I uniform. In another scene Mary snaps a bayonet from one soldier's rifle. This is a Catholic social realism of sorrow.
Maxo Vanka. The Croatian Family. 1941. Pittsburgh.
Maxo Vanka. The Capitalist. 1941. Pittsburgh.

The tempera fresco extends downwards, at the sides, around a doorway as its companion mural. What is not seen in the foto‡ is a beggar with his hand out, and being ignored. The painting is a modern retelling of the parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus. Vanka recognised the social divide in America, the liveried servant is a negro, and so is Lazarus the beggar (not in this foto), who is accompanied by a dog also waiting for scraps to trickle down.

Above is a disdaining angel. To the right is a skeletal hand carrying hell-fire. The Capitalist (Dives, the rich man) is Pittsburgh's Andrew Mellon *1855, 1937†. Now, Andrew Mellon was a banker, and owner of several industrial firms. He 'earned' money the old fashioned way, he inherited his father's bank. Before that his father set him up in business. Mellon's wealth increased.

He was Secretary of the Treasury under Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, almost eleven years until Congress (Wright Patman) looked to impeach him in January 1932. He resigned the next month, and was made ambassador to Britain. He later was involved in the failed 'Banker's Plot' to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt.

After World War I, the US had a government debt. 'The Mellon Plan' reduced taxes on the very rich, yet still increased revenue; and cut government spending. In that time, only Henry Ford and John Rockefeller were richer than Andrew Mellon. Much of the Mellon Plan was 'trickle down economics' that led to the Great Depression. In 1935 began the 'Mellon Tax Trial', which ended after Mellon's death.
'The Capitalist', Andrew Mellon, the Trickle down theorist on a 1955 3¢ stamp
‡usually i supply my fotos, none of these fotos are mine
noto bene: there is currently a restoration effort to conserve the murals which suffered water damage after the heavy rains of two former hurricane storms that washed over Pittsburgh

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the additional insights and background on the murals, which I had hoped to see while visiting Pittsburgh. The photos available on your site and other web pages certainly show what unusual and striking images they contain.
    The contacts at St. Nicholas's are very gracious; however, since the volunteer docents who provide tours (to allow viewing of the murals) are working people, three days' notice is needed to arrange a viewing. However, the murals are more readily viewable during regular weekend hours.
    (visitor from California)