Rev. Bror Erickson
“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” Luke 15:20 (ESV).
In this painting, The Prodigal Son (1924), Giorgio de Chirico revisits one of his favorite themes, a motif he first drew in 1917 as the “Great War” was coming to an end, and first painted in 1922. He would paint the motif several times again with near compulsiveness until his death in 1978. Only then would he be reunited with the father he lost as a child, even as the Father received him into the kingdom with His heavenly embrace.
Chirico gained early fame. It was his father, an engineer working on the railroads of Greece, who first taught him to draw before sending him to art school in Athens. Later, as a young man, Chirico would study art in Munich where he would soak up the ethos of Nietzche and Schopenhauer.
Existentialist philosophy emerged in his early metaphysical art that in turn would pave the way for Surrealist painters such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. From 1909 to 1918 he gained notoriety, mostly for empty town squares with distorted light and elongated shadows giving the vibe of an existential crisis, and capturing the sentiment of society caught up in the midst of World War I that claimed the lives of 16 million people.
This painting marked a transition for Chirico, who denounced modern art after the war, but found a return to classical techniques and themes to be difficult, especially as those he inspired with his early works became estranged from their muse. It’s a painting of transition that still carries themes of the proto-surrealism that he was known for in his early works. Yet here the embrace of the prodigal occupies the center of the canvas. Everything else fades off into a distant existential emptiness.
It’s a stunning portrayal of the beloved story. The son returns from his sordid sojourn in foreign lands. The life of debauchery, the inheritance squandered running from responsibility and family have reduced him to a mannequin-a shell of his former self-and everything he owns is carried in a hobo bag tied to a swineherd’s staff. But before he can repent, the cold image of his father, a stone statue worried about his image in the middle of the town square breaks loose from dignity, and free from his pedestal of honor gives him a dad’s embrace. It is an embrace that reflects the Father’s love for all His children as my friend Scott Keith says in his new book on fatherhood, Being Dad, which expounds upon the same parable:
“The love of a father is deep magic that can be sensed by all readers both Christian and non-Christian. The grace of an earthly father is a mere shadow or foggy picture of the grace of our Father in heaven. This story feels true because it is true. This tale tells everyone that the father’s love for his children, for us all, exists even though he is fully aware of all that we have done. This isn’t the story of a doting grandfather who doesn’t really know the details of the situation and just steps in with a smile saying, ‘I’m sure it will all work out in the end.’ We know that without the father stepping in and fixing it, it won’t work out in the end. This is the story of a father and his sons. The father knows of both our greed and our licentiousness. The Father knows of our pride and sanctimony. The father knows of our deep despair, our mistrust of him and our hopelessness apart from him. Yet the father loves us and shows us mercy, and in this tale, Christ tells us precisely that.” (Being Dad, Scott Keith, pg. 19)
Rev. Bror Erickson is pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, Farmington, New Mexico.