Artist Maxo Vanka

Meet Maxo Vanka

Maxo Vanka’s Millvale murals are just part of his story.

Born Maximilian Vanka in 1889, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, later becoming a professor. Though he found success in Croatia, the growing threat to his Jewish family fueled his immigration to America in 1934. At the behest of Father Zagar, he arrived in Millvale in 1937 and again in 1941 to create the Vanka Murals at St. Nicholas Church. On his philosophy of painting, he declared:

“I painted so that Divinity in becoming human, would make humanity divine.”

Maxo Vanka’s Magnificent Millvale Murals

Charlie McCollester’s fascinating essay paints a portrait of the man, artist and activist.

“Maxo Vanka’s amazing murals in industrial Millvale derive from a providential conjunction of three factors: an immigrant Croatian community willing to provide a venue, an artist with a most extraordinary experience of both poverty and privilege, and a dramatic time of conflict and social upheaval.”

Maxo Vanka: the early years

Born the illegitimate son of Austrian nobility, Maximillian Vanka spent his first eight years working as part of a peasant family. When his maternal grandmother discovered his existence, she elevated him poverty to an aristocratic life, including artistic education and opportunity. His humble beginnings inspired his life’s work.

Maxo studied at the art academy in Zagreb and then the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels. As a 25-year-old student, he won the gold medal of King Albert. Bolstered by the recognition, the artist continued to exhibit throughout Europe, winning many honors.

He won the heart of the daughter of an American doctor, Margaret Stetten, married, and migrated to the U.S. in 1934, where his life in New York City provided rich new inspiration for his work.

Maxo Vanka in School
Artist Maxo Vanka with Mary, Queen of Croatia and Arch

Maxo Vanka: immigrant in America

During Maxo’s first visit to Pittsburgh, in 1935, he fell in love with steel town. And at his one-man show in Oakland, not only was his passion on display on the gallery walls, he made a fortuitous friendship with Father Albert Zagar.

In 1937, St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church was a small parish in the immigrant community of Millvale, set atop the hillside across the Allegheny River from the bustling city of Pittsburgh.

Albert Zagar, the parish priest, longed for color on his church’s plain walls – and specifically “not average Church murals”– so, he invited Maxo Vanka to come and paint inside the small Romanesque church, which had recently been rebuilt after a destructive fire.

Vanka accepted and came to Millvale, collaborating with the priest to create one of the most spectacular collections of murals in the world. The artist painted a portion of the murals in 1937 and, in 1941, returned to the church to paint the remainder of the scenes.

Maxo Vanka: beyond the murals

His Millvale murals fueled Vanka to continue his work shining a light on the story of immigrants in America, social justice, and the quietude of rural life. Now living in Eastern Pennsylvania, he founded the art department at Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture in New Britain and continued to create art.

Maxo Vanka died in 1963 in Mexico. Today, the Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA, holds a collection of Vanka’s works. His family also retains possession of much of the body of his work and, in 2019, donated many works to the Vanka Murals organization, creating the Vanka Collection.

Maxo Vanka Collection: Pittsburgh scene

McCloskey, Dr. Barbara. “The Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka: Background & Analysis.” University of Pittsburgh Department of the History of Art and Architecture.

McDevitt, Bette. “Neighborhood Stories: Mary and Maxo.” Western Pennsylvania History (Summer 2016), p. 8-10.

McKee, Andrew Robert. “Kolosalno! There is Something Here… Power, Energy, the Future!” Haunting, Steel, Progress, and the Urban Religious Landscape. University of Missouri-Columbia, 2013.

“Millvale Murals.” Time Magazine. July 19, 1937, p. 23.

Pitz, Marylynne. “Artist’s Murals Take Center Stage for Play at Church in Millvale.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 7, 2008

Pitz, Marylynne. “Muralist Maxo Vanka’s drawings come to Pittsburgh.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 18, 2020.

Rhor, Dr. Sylvia. “St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church Murals, 1937 and 1941.” Pittsburgh Art Places.

Shakespeare, Margaret. “The Restoration of Maxo Vanka’s Working-Class, Immigrant Murals.” BELT Magazine. May 15, 2020.

The Murals of Maxo Vanka. The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka. St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, Millvale, PA, June 2018.

“The Murals of Maxo Vanka.” The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka. vankamurals.org, 2020.

Zecker, Robert M. “It Was Our Parish, After All” Immigrants and the Catholic Church. Pennsylvania Legacies, 15.2 (Fall 2015), p. 26-31.

Zubrinic, Dr. Darko. “Maxo Vanka, A Famous Croatian Painter.” CROWN: Croatian World Network. June 19, 2008.