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Dorothy Day & the Catholic Worker Movement: Art: Fritz Eichenberg

The Labor Cross

The Labor Cross

"The Labor Cross" by Fritz Eichenberg, Fritz Eichenberg Collection, Princeton University

The Labor Cross (1954) by Father John Gribowich


Eichenberg was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1901 into a nominally Jewish household. He pursued art during the time of the First World War and the subsequent Weimar Republic. His experiences of seemingly endless bombings and debilitating poverty in Germany fostered within him a deep aversion to war, along with the ability to survive with very few material resources. Frustrated and sensing a proliferation of military antagonism with the rise of Hitler, Eichenberg embarked for the United States via Guatemala and Mexico in 1933. He left Germany just in time to avoid the rise of the Third Reich, although he briefly returned to his native land to bring his wife and young daughter to the United States. Eichenberg and his family settled in New York City, and he found employment as an artist through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). His strong adherence to pacifism coupled with the untimely death of his wife in 1937 led him on a spiritual quest that journeyed through Zen Buddhism and arrived at Quakerism. When he became a Quaker in 1939, he set his life solely on Christ and the task of recognizing his presence in every human being. The artistic medium that corresponded so well for Eichenberg in this endeavor was the woodcut.


The work of a woodcut


Engraving on wood involves carving the reverse of an image onto a black painted block. Eichenberg found a “symbolic value” to this process. The carving illuminates the surface, creating “a source of light which spreads over the ‘stage,’ picks out the main actors, and sets the scene for their relationships.” Just as a sculptor liberates a figure from stone, there is a “spiritual quality” to the production of a woodcut. Technically, Eichenberg employed a four-step method to his wood engraving:

(1) a rough sketch,

(2) a more precise ink drawing,

(3) a color sketch,

and (4) the transfer of the image onto a block with an engraving tool so fine that it produced a controlled line in one stroke.

This process enabled the artist to dramatize the piece: “I want people to get caught up and be part of the scene, acting out whatever drama is occurring at the time.”


For Eichenberg, the ability to print woodcuts inexpensively and unlimitedly also had a spiritual role. Art that was easily obtainable and of consistent quality could be readily received by both the rich and the poor. Eichenberg emphasizes this novelty in a book he authored on the history of printmaking: “With the availability of paper in the West in the Late Middle Ages, the massive production of printed images became possible…. Thus the woodcut began to enter the lives of the simple people. The print could tell its story to those who could neither read nor write but might quickly grasp the meaning of a picture.”


 A chance meeting between Eichenberg and Dorothy Day in 1949 began an important professional relationship and lifelong friendship. Day encouraged and convinced the artist to create prints for The Catholic Worker newspaper of Christ, the saints, and images that reflected the works of mercy. In time, Eichenberg’s woodcuts would be taped on the walls of “coal miners’ homes in West Virginia and in farmworkers’ shacks in California” (“Fritz Eichenberg: Gentle Witness for Peace,” The Christian Century, November 2, 1983).


The Labor Cross as a labor of love


 The Labor Cross is one such work by Eichenberg that captures both the illumination of the Christian mystery and the dignity of the human person regardless of class or vocation. The depiction of each worker reflects the different types of labor from various parts of the country. The fisherman nets to the left of the farmer hoeing; the mother and her children shepherd next to the carpenter sawing; and the coal miner strikes next to the lumberjack cutting with his ax. The juxtaposition of these workers suggests an intrinsic interdependence that is embodied by the wood of the cross. Jesus, the carpenter’s son (Mt 13:55; cf. Mk 6:3), incarnates the fullness of humanity and the totality of its toils. The entirety of the image reflects the Passion of Christ—his Suffering, Death, and Resurrection—as it is experienced individually by the worker. In a subtle yet brazen way, the six distinct images of laborers sheltered and finding solace within the wooden cross unites the redemptive work of Christ with the physical work of the human person. Thus, work has fundamental meaning and dignity, since it provides a tangible sharing in Christ’s labor of unconditional love.


Perhaps Eichenberg’s wood engraving skills were of interest to Dorothy Day because the medium itself reflected the palpable aspect of work. The block of wood, the physical carving, and the images themselves represented the workers whom Day so uncompromisingly supported. In the Labor Cross, a piece that Eichenberg rendered because of his “devotion to Dorothy and her cause,” the corpse-less wood of the cross with its nail holes dominates the scene. Wood and nails— the material a carpenter uses to execute his craft. Wood and nails—the instruments used to execute the carpenter’s Son and enigmatically restore dignity to the laborer through the Resurrection.

â–  Father John Gribowich

Parochial vicar, Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Parish,
Jamaica, N.Y., Diocese of Brooklyn

Art Essay of the Month
May, 2017


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