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Famed Pittsburgh murals under holiday lights

A colorful mural with a large eye in the center.
Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka
The new restored "Eye of God" is a detail from Maxo Vanka's murals at St. Nicholas church.

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Slowly, a Pittsburgh cultural treasure is being restored. And a special event the week between Christmas and New Year’s provides a nice incentive to see it.

The murals of Maxo Vanka have adorned the sanctuary walls of Millvale’s St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church for more than 80 years. Commissioned by the church to commemorate its parishioners and their largely immigrant community, Croatia-born Vanka labored in 1937 and 1941 to honor their working-class lives and struggles. He used larger-than-life religious imagery — suffering Christ, indomitable Mary, powerful angels — alongside contemporary imagery to excoriate war, industry’s carnage and capitalist greed.

The 25 murals are on the National Register of Historic Places and have been compared to the social-realist work of such Vanka contemporaries as Diego Rivera. Pittsburgh-based art historian Sylvia Rhor has called them “a tour de force of church murals.”

But as with all murals, time has been unkind. Colors fade, soot accumulates, water damage has its way.

Now the independent nonprofit Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka is 14 years into a massive, costly and painstaking project to conserve these paintings, which line 4,500 square feet of the 123-year-old church’s walls and ceilings. Visitors can see the results of the latest round of conservation during the annual Holiday Mural Lights Tour, which runs Tues., Dec. 26, through Sun., Dec. 31.

It was a big year for the Vanka murals. In the wake of receiving a federal Save America’s Treasures Grant of $471,670, in 2022, the church got a new roof, which should greatly alleviate water infiltration. And coordinator of visitor services Mary Beth Fazio said conservators finished cleaning and restoring several of the murals on the sanctuary’s left side as one faces the altar.

These include the “New Testament” mural featuring Christ and St. Peter, and the depictions of the evangelists Luke (looking studious) and John (meditative).

It’s easy to identify the conserved murals: They’re the ones with soft museum lighting, which is installed after conservation of a given mural is complete.

Though the church hosts weekly ticketed tours Saturdays and Mondays, among other events, Holiday Mural Lights events have added attractions. The pendant church lights are doused, and a portable spotlight is used for murals still without permanent lighting.

The ticketed programs begin with a half hour of live music, featuring the likes of cellist David Bennett, baritone Franklin Mosley, and organist Matthew Radican. Then comes a one-hour docent tour by one expert or another, including some who grew up attending St. Nicholas. Afterward, visitors may adjourn to the church basement for cider, hot chocolate and homemade Croatian cookies.

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While the still-active church has all its Christmas decorations up, the tour itself is not Christmas-themed nor even religious in nature, said director of education and interpretation Becky Gaugler.

There are six tours next week. Admission for the Thu., Dec. 28, family program is pay-what-you-can and includes games, arts and crafts, a scavenger hunt, and other interactive attractions for all ages, Gaugler said. The Wed., Dec. 27, tour includes an ASL interpreter.

What’s next for the murals? Next summer, restoration begins on the Old Testament murals (including a rather furious-looking Moses). Then come the four huge panels, replete with angels, that converge to form the sanctuary’s ceiling.

There’s also more fundraising to do. The Society is working to match that Save America’s Treasures grant, for instance. Future conservation projects include the two-story Madonna and Child behind the altar. “That’s the big one,” said Fazio.

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: