From Commission to Dedication:
Sculpting the Parable of the Prodigal Son
For Duke Divinity School

By Margaret Adams Parker


By Margaret Adams Parker



Commissioning the Sculpture

In my own mind, I have always thought of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) as “the great parable.” Over the years, I have taught the parable to seminary students; I have discussed it with Bible study groups in church basements and parish halls; I have explored it with ordained clergy. Sometimes I have used great art – often the work of Rembrandt – to help us enter the narrative. At other times, I have led participants in the making of their own images of the story. I have also learned that this parable, perhaps because it is set within a family, has a way of intersecting with real lives. It sometimes provokes disagreement, even anger. But for me it remains one of the most powerful means of understanding God’s limitless capacity for forgiveness.

I was, therefore, immensely pleased to receive a commission to create a sculpture depicting this parable for the Duke Divinity School’s 2005 addition in Durham, North Carolina. Old Testament professor Ellen F. Davis had introduced me to the school’s Dean, theologian L. Gregory Jones. He selected the subject for the sculpture after discovering that he and I shared a long-time interest in the parable. His book, Embodying Forgiveness, reproduces on the cover Rembrandt’s 1642 drawing of the reunion of the father with the prodigal. Moreover, Dean Jones felt that a sculpture on this parable would be emblematic of the Divinity School’s work on reconciliation. The 2005 addition to the Duke Divinity School includes a Center for Reconciliation.


With the subject chosen, I began to work with the Arts Committee, an advisory group comprised of Divinity School faculty, administrators, staff, and a chaplain. I was the first artist they worked with, but by the time the addition was complete the committee had worked I feel strongly that any commission should be a collaborative effort, with the artist and the commissioning institution working together to achieve a result which will be satisfying to both. We began our work together accordingly by reading the parable and discussing it.

It is a challenge to take any extended story – this is the longest of the biblical parables – and depict it in a single work of art. Where a filmmaker or choreographer is able to present the complete narrative, a sculptor can “tell” only one part of the story. For instance, we might have chosen to depict the prodigal’s initial demand for his patrimony, his “coming to himself” among the pigs, or his journey home. But the committee and I agreed that while all of these scenes are essential to the tale, the events at the end – scenes involving prodigal, father, and older brother – serve best to summarize the meaning of the whole. Based on our discussions, I proposed to make five small plaster “sketches” representing different ways of depicting the parable’s ending.

I returned with the sketches 6 months later. These offered variations on the reunion of prodigal and father, with the older brother included in some of the sketches. In one sketch, for instance, the older brother viewed the reunion of father and prodigal from a position on the far side of a doorway. Interestingly the committee’s first choice was the sketch, which I had hoped they would choose and I took this as an indication that the committee and I were working well together. The sketch was a response to a comment by Andrew T.P. Merrow, the rector of my home parish (St. Mary’s in Arlington, Virginia), that the father was the bridge between the two brothers: I showed the father embracing the prodigal, but turning to reach out to the older brother. This version conflates the two scenes at the end of the parable, but all of us agreed that it best captured our understanding of the story.

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View The Parable of the Prodigal Son told in bronze


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2006 The Episcopal Church and Visual Arts