St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Millvale was built in the early 1900s as a place of worship for the large Croatian population in the region. In 1921 the church was devastated by a fire, and was rebuilt in 1922.
In the years that followed the congregation worshiped in a church that was relatively devoid of imagery, and in the late 1930s the church commissioned acclaimed Croatian artist Maxo Vanka to adorn the walls with his work. He was given significant creative control in his art, and the resulting murals are nothing short of a masterpiece that is often referred to as his “gift to America.”
Since then, the murals been appreciated by countless parishioners and visitors, and in the early 2000s a comprehensive restoration effort began in order to ensure they survive for generations to come.
Social Commentary in Religious Art
One of the reasons Vanka's work is so acclaimed is that it provides a bit of social commentary of the time as told through religious artwork. Some murals have weeping widows mourning over a Croatian soldier lost in WWI, while other widows mourn a steelworker who was lost in the mills of Pittsburgh.
Others show a WWI soldier stabbing what he thinks is an enemy, but is actually Mary, and others take a more direct approach to talk about the problems of affluence in a war torn society.
While the references to the war and other social injustices are highly present in his murals, Vanka also introduced significant religious symbolism everywhere you look, with the area around the altar being some of the most traditional (at the request of the church, of course).
But visitors who wish to visit this one who are afraid they'll miss out on all the details are in luck, as the only way you can visit St. Nicholas as a guest (outside of church hours, of course) is via a tour with a well trained docent!
A Great Hour Long Tour
The tours at St. Nicholas Catholic Church last about an hour with a requested donation (which during our visit was $10). The docents do a fantastic job leading you through the history of the church, the commissioning of Maxo Vanka, and the ideas incorporated into his art.
Vanka sadly did not leave many records of his thoughts for the murals, so most of his work is open for interpretations. Add in the subtle details Vanka added into each mural and you'll quickly appreciate the added insight of the docents as they point out details and ideas you likely would miss on your own.
Overall, Pittsburgh is very fortunate to have the work of Maxo Vanka in the greater metropolitan area, and is one of those hidden gems that should be on all religious and art history lover's radars.
St. Nicholas Catholic Church is located at 24 Maryland Avenue in Millvale. Tours are often scheduled on Saturdays with a requested donation.
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