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Conservation of Pittsburgh's Maxo Vanka murals takes big step forward with federal grant

Art conservation is painstaking work. All the more when the art is painted right onto the interior walls of an active church.

That’s the story of Maxo Vanka’s acclaimed murals at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, in Millvale. The 25 stunning, large-scale images, which date to the 1930s and ’40s, condemn greed, injustice and war by blending biblical and contemporary imagery. But time and moisture have damaged the paint as well as the plaster Vanka applied it to. And then there’s the soot that’s sifted through the church’s windows over the past 85 years.

“Just cleaning a square foot of a mural can take up to three hours,” said Anna Doering, executive director of the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka.

That helps explain why the Society, founded in 1991, has been able to proceed with conservation work only piecemeal, as funds have trickled in over the years.

That dynamic has shifted. Last week, the Society received its biggest grant ever: $471,670 from the federal Save America’s Treasures program, administered through the National Park Service.

It’s a game changer, said Doering. “With a grant like this, we will have all the funds in place to complete a phase of conservation without stopping,” she said.

“Through private and public investments, the Save America’s Treasures program supports community-based preservation and conservation work on some of our nation’s most important collections, artifacts, structures, and sites for the benefit of future generations,” NPS director Chuck Sams said in a statement.

The murals, which Vanka called “Gift to America,” cover about 4,500 square feet of the church, which was built in 1900. The grant will fully fund conservation of the murals on the upper walls and ceiling, plus the purchase of scaffolding and the design of a climate-control system for the sanctuary, Doering said.

Currently, the church simply opens its windows in warm months and relies on radiator heat in the cold, which often leads to either high humidity or overly dry conditions, both of which are bad for the murals.

Vanka, a Croatian immigrant, painted one set of murals in 1937 and a second in 1941. One goal was to honor the Croatian immigrants for whom the church was built, who are depicted at work, at prayer, and in mourning. But Vanka’s impassioned imagery also excoriated greedy capitalists, decried deadly industrial conditions, and condemned war. In one mural, a modern soldier spears a crucified Christ with his bayonet. In another, a towering Virgin Mary separates two battling soldiers.

Other centerpieces include the looming figures of “Justice” and “Injustice,” the former a beatific angel, the latter a sword-wielding wraith in a gas mask.

The murals are a visitor attraction, with regular guided tours.

In 2019, in part because of the murals, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh named St. Nicholas one of its six Shrines of Pittsburgh.

But however much artistic imagination Vanka put into the murals, he mistakenly didn’t paint them to last. Unlike a true fresco, in which a specific kind of paint is applied to wet plaster and sets with it, Vanka simply used commercial-grade paint on an existing plaster wall. So along with the accumulated dirt and inevitable aging, the murals suffer from “efflorescence,” a build-up of salts the plaster excretes in the presence of moisture.

It can all be repaired, and the paintings restored, said Doering, but it takes time – and money. As a condition of the Save America’s Treasures grant, the Society (an independent nonprofit unaffiliated with the church or the diocese) has about three years to raise matching funds. Doering said that will bring the total funds available for this phase of the project to nearly $1 million, and also permit the installation of the new climate-control system and museum-quality lighting.

The planned replacement of the church roof is a separate project funded in large part by a $100,000 state grant, she said.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: