Scenes from the Life of the Prodigal Son
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Pieter Coecke van Aelst
Flemish, Netherlands, about 1530
Pen and brown ink and gray wash, over traces of black chalk
7 9/16 x 20 1/4 in.

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Pieter Coecke van Aelst combined various scenes into a continuous narrative that proceeds left to right like a cartoon strip. The prodigal son takes leave of his father, lavishes his money on worldly pleasures at a brothel, gets chased away by prostitutes, lands in a pigsty, and finally reconciles with his father. In the 1500s, this popular parable taught about the sin of extravagance and the virtue of forgiveness. In contrast to the text of the Bible, which emphasizes the father's final act of forgiveness, artists and patrons of that period often focused lively attention on the brothel scene. Coecke set it further forward than the rest of the action, with the detailed landscape and architectural passages of the other episodes forming an elaborate backdrop. Emphasizing attractive outlines, he filled the entire drawing with elegantly proportioned figures. Scholars believe that the drawing's large scale and horizontal format suggest that Coecke might have made it as a tapestry design.