Maksimilijan Vanka

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Maksimilijan Vanka (Maxo Vanka)
Vanka in 1946
Born (1889-10-11)11 October 1889
Zagreb, Austria-Hungary
Died 2 February 1963(1963-02-02) (aged 73)
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Nationality Croatian/American
Known for Painting

Maksimilijan Vanka (October 11, 1889 – February 2, 1963), also known as Maxo Vanka, was a Croatian-American artist.


Vanka was born in Croatia in 1889. It is believed that he may have been the illegitimate child of Habsburg nobility. He was sent to live with peasants, but at the age of eight was discovered by his maternal grandfather and sent to live in a castle. He studied art in Zagreb, Croatia and Brussels, Belgium. During World War I, he served with the Belgian Red Cross, because he was a pacifist and would not serve in the regular army.

He taught art in Zagreb, but went to America in the 1930s with his wife Margaret Stetten Vanka and his young daughter Peggy.

His most important works are his Millvale Murals in the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, the first Croatian Catholic parish in the United States, in Millvale, Pennsylvania, a town adjacent to the city of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County. They depict Christ and Mary in images of war and offer social commentary on world events like fascism, war, and poverty.

He is memorialized in a play called "Gift to America", written in 1981 by Carnegie Mellon University Professor David P. Demarest.

This one-hour play tells the story of how Vanka was commissioned by the church to paint the murals by Father Albert Zagar, the church pastor, and it provides insight into each of the murals' meanings as expressed by the artist. The murals, there are 20 in all, cover the walls and ceiling of the church. They were painted in two sessions, one in 1939 and the other in 1941. The differences in the murals before and after the war are quite stark and strikingly vivid.

Murals painted before the war depict Croatian immigrants coming to America to seek a better life, grateful to have escaped the slaughter taking place in their homeland. Their strong sense of pride in their heritage comes through and blends well with their entrance into the Pittsburgh labor-intensive industry of the time. This was Vanka's [sic]"Mothers offer up their sons for labor" theme, a tribute to all those who worked diligently in the mills and mines in and around Pittsburgh. One mural depicts the fire and collapse of one of the coal burning mills and as a Croatian mother cradles her dead son, her other three sons rush into the mill to save their fellow workers. The mother ends up losing all four of her sons, sacrificed for the good of others.

Murals painted after the war are much more striking and vivid with very dark and haunting themes. This was Vanka's [sic] "Mothers offer up their sons for war" theme. He was a committed pacifist and the intensity of his beliefs are depicted clearly in these murals. One mural is of the Virgin Mary coming between two warring soldiers. Another depicts two soldiers battling each other, yet this time it is Jesus who attempts to intercede and one of the soldiers accidentally thrusts his bayonet into Jesus' heart, causing a look of such utter surprise and pain on Jesus' face. Another mural depicts a foreboding figure, dressed in black, with a gas mask over their face, depicting the horrors of war and the evilness of those who would send men into war. To Vanka, there were no justifiable reasons for war.

He taught art at a community college in Bucks County, Pennsylvania at the end of his life.

He died swimming off the coast of Puerto Vallarta in 1963.


The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka, founded in 1991 with the mission to preserve and maintain the murals, is leading a campaign to clean, restore and light the murals. SPMMMV also manages a docent program. Docent-led tours are available at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church on Saturday and Sunday from 1:00pm – 4:00 pm.

On Easter Sunday 2012 the Pittsburgh-based band Action Camp released a short film setting one of their live performances of a musical suite against the Maxo Vanka murals that inspired it. This is one of only two performances of this work, that was performed in front of the Millvale Murals in the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church. The band was commissioned to perform this suite in a collaboration called Hi-Rez.[citation needed]

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