Work of Art: "Working for Faith and Family: Henry Mosler's Forging the Cross"

"Working for Faith and Family: Henry Mosler's Forging the Cross"

by Dan Graff
Director, Higgins Labor Program, and Professor of the Practice, Department of History
March 2016
Note: This essay was initially included in a brochure produced by the University of Notre Dame's Snite Museum of Art to accompany the January–March 2016 special exhibit of Mosler's 1905 painting. The single-work exhibition was part of an ongoing series focusing on a painting from the Snite Museum’s permanent collection that is normally not on view.  

Henry Mosler’s Forging the Cross foregrounds artisans hard at work in the construction of the essential icon of Christianity. An idealized illustration of the traditional craft shop, the men sport leather aprons, wield hand tools, and collaborate closely as they deploy mind and muscle to fashion metal into a customized product. At the time Mosler composed his painting, such workplaces were rapidly disappearing, as innovations in technology and production methods rapidly transformed the division of labor and the distribution of wealth. In the face of urgent public questions about the status of work and the role of religion in industrializing America, Mosler’s painting sanctified the traditional craft economy by linking it to Christianity, suggesting that the future of both faith and family lay in the hands of workers.

Forging the Cross was unveiled in 1905, the same year as the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical union decrying the dehumanization of capitalism and advocating that workers seize the means of production. Not long after that, John A. Ryan, a Catholic priest and labor economist, published his influential A Living Wage, which declared that workers had the natural right to an income adequate to support themselves and their families. Mosler’s painting forged its own argument about the inherent dignity of labor and its relationship to Christianity.

If the painting sees human agency as central to the construction of religion, it goes further than that, specifying that workers—not clerics or their congregations—are the church’s indispensable builders. Standing outside the workshop but peering in expectantly, the women and children passively occupy a sphere completely separate from, yet entirely dependent on, the men and their work, a gendered ordering of the world consistent with the breadwinner ideology of Ryan’s Catholic social thought and the labor movement more generally for much of the twentieth century.

The priest also plays a passive role in the production, but unlike the women, he is placed in the center of both the painting and the activity. His presence there seems problematic: narratively, he seems too close to the heat and in danger of being hit by a stray spark; figuratively, he suggests the meddling manager or overweening employer that was a staple of craftsmen’s complaints. Intensely proud of their skills and status, craftsmen were notorious for refusing to work when watched by bosses or customers. The priest’s passivity and awkward placement stand in sharp contrast to the forceful and organically collaborative action of the craftsmen, suggesting that Mosler had suspicions about the role of the clergy in the workplace, and, for that matter, in the church itself.

Painted in a period of violent workplace conflicts and heated debates over the proper relationships between industrialization, democracy, and religion, Henry Mosler’s Forging the Cross suggests the centrality and indispensability of dignified labor to the project of Christianity. A century later, we confront our own questions about the relationships between faith, family, and the future of our economic system. Though our answers may differ from Mosler’s, his painting points to the enduring importance of work and the material world to the search for salvation.

Further exploration:

The classic exploration of the American craftsman's confrontation with industrial capitalism remains the scholarship of David Montgomery, in particular Workers' Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (Cambridge U. Press, 1979) and The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (Cambridge U. Press, 1987).

The growing literature on the Industrial Workers of the World builds upon Melvyn Dubofsky's We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (Quadrangle, 1969).

For Rev. John A. Ryan's influence on American labor reformers of the Progressive and New Deal eras, see Laura Murphy's "An 'Indestructible Right': John Ryan and the Catholic Origins of the U.S. Living Wage Movement, 1906–1938," Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 6.1 (2009), 57-86.

For other contributions to Notre Dame's Snite Museum of Art's brochure accompanying the January–March 2016 special exhibit of Mosler's painting, see "In Dialogue: Henry Mosler's Forging the Cross."

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