This week I went to see the Maxo Vanka Murals again, and I realized how much my art has become trying to reverse engineer the experience of seeing the inside of that church. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Maxo Vanka was humanist Croatian artist who, in the 1930s, painted religious art in a Catholic Church in Millvale. He combined humanism and religious imagery and added a sensibility that made the paintings very strange. Green tinted, large eyed angels advocating silence. Violently angry Moses holding the law. WW1 soldiers stabbing Jesus on the cross.
Going to that church was the most astounded by art I’ve been in my life. (Close runner up was seeing impressionist paintings in person in Phildelphia during a special exhibit, but that was less surprise and more catharsis) First, I didn’t know that that kind of fusion could be amazing and wildly coherent. Second, I didn’t know that something like that could be in Pittsburgh. This church was something of a one off for Maxo Vanka- the rest of his career he was painting nature and following out other ideas. Only in that church is the Christian story told in such a bizarre yet satisfying way.
Early on, I didn’t want to do anything with religious imagery. It’s such hazardous subject, with the rocks of cliche, sacrilege, and sentimentality ready to add another ship to its ocean graveyard. As I’ve gotten older, though, it seems like something I could handle with practice. Worth a shot at least.
This painting is of a woman who is on the board of Mon Valley Initiative and is part of the Society of St. Vincent DePaul painted as Anna the prophet. It’s about waiting for change and fulfillment of faith.
Here is the progression: