I find myself, once again, with feet planted firmly on the creaking floors of a church. I’m doing my best to scan its current audience, finding art and history enthusiasts rather than the expected religious crowd. It seems like this group is here for one thing: the murals that adorn the walls of the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. I’m okay with that.

Maxo Vanka was a Croatian immigrant famous for his artistic talents who was commissioned by Father Albert Zagar, the church’s priest, in 1937. Between April and June of that year, Vanka painted the inside of St. Nicholas depicting the trials of war, Capitalism, and the hardships of immigrant workers, all with Croatian overtones. It’s the only church anywhere in the world with Vanka’s work–nicknamed “Pittsburgh’s Sistine Chapel.”

As I walk in, I’m greeted by a kind man who’s dressed corporate-office-style [explain organic] hired to give guided tours of the artworks, but I prefer to explore the place on my own. I drop $10 into the donations box and take a seat in one of the pews. The well-dressed curator is talking about Vanka’s work ethic of completing the first 12 murals in a span of eight weeks. I’m taking in the feeling of the old worn varnish of the pew under my palm, and he speaks of Vanka’s need to escape the horrors of World War Two. I’m staring at Mati 1941, the mural toward the back of the church. I keep coming back to it in particular.

Vanka had intended the mural to depict his motherland, Croatia, crucified by the atrocities of war. At the bottom left is a branch sporting lush green leaves, a symbol of new life and hope for the country. She’s crying tears of blood, she herself wounded by the suffering of her people. Because the very nature of art is interpretation, I find something reminiscent here of the Old Norse Hávamál, specifically Óðinn’s acquisition of the runes from the cosmic tree Yggdrasil.

Left: "Odin Hanging on the World-Tree" by Franz Stassen
Right: "Mati 1941" by Maxo Vanka

In the Poetic Edda, it’s written that Óðinn hung himself from Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights, piercing himself with his own spear and refusing food or water. Nine (or 3 x 3) is a sacred number for the Norse. In doing so he gains the knowledge of the Runes, a powerful force that was or is the very fabric of reality. In a sense, words create reality, not the other way around. He sacrificed to achieve his goals, not letting anything–including death–stand in his way.

I get that vibe from Vanka, too. Despite the grueling hours it took to create these works of art, Vanka persevered. He left the ethnic community a gift that would outlast himself, and I feel honored to have experienced it.

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