“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer fit to be called your son,” the prodigal son pleads when his parent eagerly welcomes him home after years of separation. The biblical parable of the prodigal son, recounted only in the Gospel of Luke (15:11–32), captures the joy of rediscovering something long lost. But this 1919 painting by Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico offers a bleak vision of the reunion of the father, who appears as a stony sculpture, and his mechanical, mannequin son.
According to Luke, the father, gladdened by his son’s return, instructs his servants to bring the youth his best robe, a ring and shoes, and kills a fatted calf in celebration. When the prodigal son’s brother, who has spent his life working faithfully for his father, grumbles that he has never been treated so well, the father explains: “My son, you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found” (Luke 15:31–32).