Dionna Dash
Dionna Dash

A Spectacle of Tourists

Image by Dionna Dash

I grew up as a spectacle of tourists. Or, rather, in one, I suppose. Every Sunday morning during my Hebrew school classes at Beth Sholom synagogue, I would pass tour groups ogling over the triangular shape of the building or the odd-looking spikes coming out of its sides, chattering excitedly about famed-architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 creation in sleepy Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. They posted cameras all over the chapel one year when our Yom Kippur services were filmed for a documentary about the world’s prettiest synagogues. I have sat for 21 years in a slanted sanctuary designed to represent Mount Sinai. I was Bat Mitzvahed in the arc representing the top of the mountain. One of the first search results when you Google my synagogue’s name is an Architectural Digest article praising its design.

There is a sort of pride with this recognition, knowing that my temple is meaningful and beautiful on so many levels and that I get to be one of the lucky ones for whom it can be, through so many repeated viewings, wonderfully mundane.

Yet there is also a sort of objectification, since it was clear, even to ten-year-old me on her way to Judaics class, that these people probably would not care less about my synagogue had it not been a creation of Frank Lloyd Wright. We are on display for our beautiful bones, our stained-glass walls and vaulted ceilings, not for our thoughts or ideas.

All this is simply to say that, upon entering St. Nicholas Catholic Church, the Pittsburgh parish that houses the splendid Maxo Vanka murals, I was somewhat used to inhabiting spaces of renowned religious art. I understood what it meant to belong to a temple that people tour, to harness that dichotomy of pride and objectification, to be a native rather than a tourist. My goal for my tour of the church’s walls was to use this knowledge, this shared experience, to respectfully navigate another congregation’s wonderfully mundane.

Whereas Beth Sholom’s design is conspicuous upon a simple glance at the building’s exterior, the St. Nicholas Catholic Church is entirely unassuming. The building is fairly small, covered in cheery yellow bricks and resting high above the city on a Millvale hill. As I first walked into the sanctuary, my eyes climbed the painted walls, finally resting on Mary, Queen of Croatia, her gaze looking out over all of us, greeting us with a forlorn eyes. There is a feeling of being dwarfed in a space like this, a sort of dimensional transcendence. Somehow, this small building had grown to twice its size on the inside, elevated by brushstrokes larger-than-life, and I felt so stuck, being only five feet off the ground.

Maxo Vanka first painted these murals in 1937 at the behest of Father Albert Zagar, a Croatian immigrant and the pastor at St. Nicholas at the time. The walls had been barren for 16 years after a fire damaged the building in 1921. A renowned painter and Croatian immigrant himself, Vanka agreed to create the murals, designing images that depicted both religious figures, like saints and apostles, and also scenes of the cruelty and injustice of industrialism and war, comparing poverty in Croatia with immigration in Pittsburgh. Vanka finished the first round of murals in two months and returned in 1941 to complete the second round.

Now, exactly 80 years later, the themes of these paintings still resonate. One of the murals depicts injustice, sitting on high and looking down on us all. In one hand he holds a bloody sword; in the other, he’s dangling a scale in which gold outweighs bread, signifying how money and industrialist greed hold more value in his eyes than basic human needs like food. His feet are crushing the bodies of men in chains, wailing out pleas for their lives, while his face is covered by a gas mask, showcasing his fear to breathe in the same air he pollutes.

This mural, and the other ones lining the walls and ceilings of the church, are currently undergoing restoration by the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka. For many years, no one cared for the murals and protected them from the natural deterioration that occurs when frescos are housed in an open room, as these are. Fine arts conservators are now cleaning and retouching the murals, but they leave proof of the damage as a sort of testament to its occurrence.

In a mural entitled, “Croatian Mother Raises Her Son for War,” which shows a group of women in white dresses mourning over the coffin of a young soldier who has passed, there is a small square in the bottom left corner that is starkly darker than the rest of the white skirt surrounding it. This square inch is that evidence, the before picture of this renovated mural, the declaration of just how quietly these murals have slipped away, how simply they have fallen into the darkness without a protest, how calmly art is lost to apathy.

There was this astounding awe at seeing these grandiose murals floating high above my head that wars with this haunting, almost reverent feeling from the pain in the paintings, like a silence I did not dare to break with something as insignificant as my own voice. These paintings almost died once. Their subjects are downtrodden and their creator has passed away. Yet I saw them, and I bore witness to their magnificence, and art historians have physically brought them back into the light. Their messages are eternal, facing the test of time and coming out regrettably victorious. These murals are surviving. They are evolving.

There is a sign at the back of the church that reads “Mask-Preferred Seating,” directing parishioners who want increased protection against COVID-19 to sit in certain pews. That simple sign reminded me that others use this space as well, that something that exists magnificently for me simply exists for them. While the tourists at my synagogue were constantly reminded of the congregants who belonged to the temple, watching kids in kippahs run through the halls or hearing a weeknight service from the chapel down the hall, this tour was void of parishioners, making it harder to remember that other people share this space.

The originator of humanistic geography, Yi-Fu Tuan, explains the difference between spaces and places in his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Tuan states that, “When space feels thoroughly familiar to us, it has become place. Kinesthetic and perceptual experience as well as the ability to form concepts are required for the change if the space is large.” To me, this means that in order for a large space, like a temple, to become a place for me, I need to be able to walk through the rooms in my mind, to have walked through them physically, and to create my own meaning in them. I need to transcend a tourist state.

It seems that one way this is achieved in spaces of renowned religious art is by having a divergent understanding of the meaning of the pieces present. The tour guide on my visit to the murals pointed out the painting called “Prudence,” which visualizes sagacity as a green-robed winged figure holding a branch of some kind in one hand and a finger to their lips using the other. She explained how children who grew up in this church believe the figure is telling them to be quiet, to pay attention to church services. For them, the mural has a new meaning. Before I learned that the floor of Beth Sholom’s main sanctuary was sloped at a steep angle to resemble Mount Sinai, I used to think the rabbis designed it that way to make it easier to partake in the tradition of throwing gummy candy at the person being bar or bat mitzvahed.

While my synagogue has undoubtedly become a place for me, I am not entirely sure about the status of the Maxo Vanka mural gallery. I have physically been in the space, can mentally walk through it, and clearly have interpretations of the murals and the feelings they produce, yet I do not think I know the space intimately enough for it to be a place. My meanings are convergent with the generalized beliefs about the paintings; they read like the tour guide’s script.

Tuan brings up another concept in his book, called crowding, which “is an awareness that one is observed.” This experience is neither inherently positive or negative, but can be either and anything in between. The parishioners have avoided this sensation by not being in the church during tours; they have maintained the integrity of the space just for themselves. Perhaps this experience of crowding in the synagogue tours from my childhood led to my aforementioned feeling of objectification. I do believe that this avoidance of being observed, this divorce from the traditional notions of these murals, helps St. Nicholas’ congregants make the murals a place for themselves.

Maxo Vanka’s artwork is stunning, a showcase of variegated figures surrounding you on all sides and meeting your eyes with their own desperate gazes. The paintings are beautiful and raw and so immaculately detailed. The murals coexist, as anyone who visits them must as well, with the parishioners of St. Nicholas Catholic Church, and they reflect within them struggles to survive in an increasingly apathetic world. Yet there is an undercurrent of hope, a glimmer of salvation in the stories these murals paint. Whether or not you have experience inhabiting a tourable religious space, the splendor of these murals is accessible to all.

About the Author
Dionna Dash is originally from Philadelphia, but now attends the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies communications and linguistics and is a student leader at Hillel JUC. Dionna loves to learn new languages, write short stories and dabble in improv comedy. Having dealt with disordered eating for many years, she is very passionate about proper fitness and nutrition. https://www.linkedin.com/in/dionna-dash/
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