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The "Worker Christ"

The theme of the "Worker Christ" was elaborated towards the end of the 1940s by Don Giovanni Rossi together with Monsignor Giovanni Fallani, who, making use of the economic resources made available by the same industrialists who supported the publication of "Il Regno", intended to propose it to artists. The most diligent supporter of this initiative was baron Francesco Mario Oddasso, general manager of CISA Viscosa.

Don Giovanni recalled his visit to the “Cittadella” writing on the pages of "La Rocca", designing the unusual iconographic theme:

Oddasso came to Assisi, visited our office and pausing to look at the copious Christian iconography of our Observatory asked me: ‘Why are there so many works of art that represent Jesus in childhood and in his public life and aren't there any that represent him when, after the death of St. Joseph, he lives as a hard-working craftsman in the Nazareth workshop near Mary? Today in which the worker is exalted so much, it would still be necessary for Jesus the worker to appear in art to exalt the beauty and greatness of work’. Then he added: ‘Listen, Don Giovanni, I'm ready to make a sum available for some prizes. You invite Italian artists; prepare an announcement and let me know what is needed for this artistic competition’.

The idea of the wealthy and munificent industrialist was to obtain works capable of spreading the cult, but above all the example, of the Divine worker among the mass of workers, to indicate a cultural, ideological and behavioral model different from the one propagated by the ideology Marxist.

“Divine Worker Jesus” is configured, therefore, as an operation of clear social policy, aimed at the “Christian reclamation of the working masses”, to oppose the materialistic-Marxist interpretation of society and history with devotion to the one who redeemed human toil by freeing it from the condition of biblical punishment.

In 1951, among the first artists to be called upon to tackle the theme of Jesus the worker, we find - alongside de Chirico and Oppo - the sculptors Pericle Fazzini and Giovanni Prini. The latter, close to Don Giovanni Rossi since the years in Milan, chose to represent the figure of Christ in a suspended and meditative attitude, “without resorting to the realism of narration or the rhetoric of gestures”, essentialising the descriptive and contextualizing elements that often characterize this iconography. Pericle Fazzini, on the contrary, built a complex and expressionistically energetic rhythmic structure in the model of his Jesus the worker: “The cruciform instrument, the body of Christ who ideally invokes and repeats the Cross in the plastic mass, form a tight discourse, led to its conclusion without interruptions or amusements of a literary nature”.

Among the acquisitions of works of sculpture which took place in correspondence with the exhibitions of the Pro Civitate, in the following years, we note those of Angelo Biancini, Antonio Biggi and Venanzo Crocetti (with a personal exhibition at the Cittadella, which included “Deposition”, the relief of the “Grande Pietà” and the plaster “Crucifix”); Tullio Figini and Eros Pellini, in 1954 (when Floriano Bodini obtained a third prize by presenting himself with a painting in the competition on the theme of Christ in the house of Nazareth next to Mary his Mother and Saint Joseph); those of Biancini, Francesco Nagni, Carlo Paganini, Giuseppe Fotunato Pirrone and Romano Vio, in 1955; of Ettore Calvelli, Alfio Castelli, Giordano Crestani, Attilio Torresini and again Giovanni Prini, in 1956; of Enzo Assenza, Artemio Giovagnoni, Giovanni Meloni, Publio Morbiducci, Francesco Prosperi and Antonio Ranocchia, in 1957; of Antonio Berti, Ugo Lucerni and Alessandro Monteleone, in 1958.

In 1959 Virginio Ciminaghi, Giovagnoni, Jozsef Gudics and Raoul Vistoli measured themselves against the theme of the “Divine Worker”. After the exhibitions of Rouault and William Congdon, in 1962 Giovanni Meloni successfully presented his “Healing of the blind” in the competition (inspired by the theme of the medical Jesus, to which a specific exhibition had been reserved the previous year), while Raoul Vistoli set up his personal exhibition and Romano Vio inaugurated the medallion with the portrait of Pope John XXIII in the Auditorium. This was followed in 1963 by the rich personal exhibition of Floriano Bodini with ten graphic works and fourteen sculptures, including the crowded and dramatic group of “Pope John and the cardinals” purchased by the Pro Civitate, and in 1965 and 1966 the personal exhibitions of Biancini and Ciminaghi.

1956 marked a decisive moment for the media diffusion of the iconographic subject and for the devotion to the “Divine worker”. The Church celebrated May 1 for the first time and the Catholic workers enrolled in the “ACLI” organized an impressive international gathering in Milan. In Piazza Duomo, at the presence of the President of the Council of Ministers, Mr Antonio Segni, after having listened to the broadcast of the message addressed to them by Pius XII, the ACLI fellows had Archbishop Montini (the future Paul VI) bless the statue of the divine worker Jesus: a work of Enrico Nell Breuning that they wanted to send as a gift to the Holy Father. The sculpture was picked up in Piazza Duomo by a helicopter and after flying over the city - “the capital of industrious Lombardy, the beating heart of Italian work” - it was taken to Linate airport, then sent to Rome and once it arrived in Ciampino it was newly loaded onto an helicopter and transferred to the Vatican, where it was exhibited for the veneration of the people in St. Peter's Square and then placed for a few months in the Cortile di San Damaso. Later the Pope assigned it to the Roman church being erected dedicated to the Divine Worker Jesus. The event catalysed the attention of the media and the image of the Divine Worker was broadcast on national television, was reproduced on the front pages of newspapers and also on two issues of the magazine Rocca.

In 1958 the Beato Angelico Institute in Rome returned to dealing with the divine worker Jesus and, trying to further fuel interest in this subject, published the announcement for the first national prize Jesus worker for black and white and painting works: a competition that never it was addressed to artists, but reserved for amateurs and especially for the workers of the major Italian factories.

Despite the initiatives that took place outside the Cittadella, there is no doubt that the project “Jesus divine worker” developed, obtaining the consensus of public opinion and a wide participation of intellectuals, artists and industrialists above all thanks to the Pro Civitate Christiana.

In the early 1960s, the Osservatorio tried to further develop the iconography of the “Divine worker” by articulating the subject in the themes of “Jesus the doctor” and “Jesus the teacher”, "to indicate the insertion of Christ into human life in all its aspects and in all its completeness". Nonetheless, in 1962 the exhibition “Jesus the worker, teacher and doctor” marked the end of both the competitions and the commissions. Moreover, a considerable quantity of sculptural and pictorial works, arranged in the rooms of the Art Gallery of the Osservatorio, amply documented the iconography of the worker Christ, so much so that the Pro Civitate became a point of reference for those who needed to know or deal with similar subject. Above all, the parish priests of the churches dedicated to the Divine Worker who needed images for worship turned to Don Giovanni, as to Baron Oddasso. In this regard, the baron had photographs of the works conserved in the Cittadella sent "to show anyone who requests them how the artists have interpreted the Christian ideal of work" and in a letter dated 6 October 1962 he wrote to Don Rossi: "yesterday I was lucky enough to speak with Cardinal Montini, who said that a church dedicated to Jesus the Worker will soon be built in Milan. In order to have an idea of the representations that could be placed in the church for the devotion of the faithful, the Cardinal told me having said that he will ask you for photos of the works that we have provoked over the years by the various artists on the subject of the Worker Jesus".

In 1967, the Pro Civitate Christiana, with the aim of promoting an authentically expressive art of the presence of Christ in man and in today's world, announced a national competition for works of sculpture and painting on the theme “Christ in the civilization of machines”. With this initiative, the Observatory attempted - unfortunately in vain - to relaunch the project “Jesus divine worker”, “leaving the maximum freedom to the artists in conceiving and realizing the proposed theme”. The competition was not followed up, but in other contexts the artists continued to depict Jesus the divine worker: for example, Enrico Manfrini did it in the medal commissioned by the ACLI in the twentieth year of their foundation (1964) and Eros Pellini in 1966 on the recto of the medal minted during the pontificate of Paul VI for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of Rerum Novarum, but also all the authors of the altarpieces and statues destined for the churches of the “Jesus divine worker” which have been built over the years in Italy and in other parts of the world.