Beyond an arched door in the wall, the stone path winds through a tunnel of holly and boxwood. Twisting left, under the boughs of an immense blue Atlas cedar, the path descends, leading to an open garden. Across the beds of herbs and roses stands a granite sculpture of a bearded father with his arms around his son.

The slightly larger-than-life sculpture known as "The Prodigal Son" is the one contemporary focal point of the medieval-style Bishop's Garden of the Washington National Cathedral -- a garden known for its beauty in all seasons. The work of a renowned German-born sculptor named Heinz Warneke, the sculpture depicts a frequently retold parable from the New Testament. A plaque at the base of the sculpture relates the wayward son's return: "And he arose and came to his father. But when he was a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." It is this moment of unconditional paternal forgiveness that "The Prodigal Son" sculpture depicts.

Cathedral garden visitors almost always pause in front of the Warneke sculpture or visit the garden for the explicit experience of being in its presence; some say their understanding of the sculpture is religious, some claim a secular interpretation, but for each, the stone seems to resonate and the father's love shines through.

The magnetic power of "The Prodigal Son" has landed it a place in more than one contemporary novel set in Washington. In Judith Viorst's "Murdering Mr. Monti," her protagonists visit the Bishop's Garden during a marital crisis and gravitate toward the sculpture. "We sat," she writes, in the voice of the wife, "as far apart as we could -- on a small wooden bench just beyond The Prodigal Son,' stone figures draped in an all-is-forgiven embrace." Margaret Truman also chose Warneke's sculpture as a meeting place for a scene in her novel, "Murder at the National Cathedral."

Warneke made Georgetown his winter home in his middle and later years. But it was during an earlier time that he executed his masterly portrayal of father-son love. While living in Paris as a young man, he was captivated by the image of his stepdaughter kneeling close to her mother. The pose would serve as the initial inspiration for "The Prodigal Son." Warneke and his family relocated to America in the early 1930s, buying a farm in rural Connecticut. It was there that he found his primary models for what "he considered to be one of his greatest achievements," writes his biographer, Mary Mullen Cunningham, in "Heinz Warneke (1895-1983): A Sculptor First and Last."

Dan Freeman Bradley was approaching 80 when he came to visit his son's family in the house across from the Warneke farm on the Connecticut dirt road. "Heinz was very impressed with Dan's face," in which he saw "the spirit he wanted" for the father in his dual-figure sculpture, remembers Warneke's stepdaughter, Priscilla Waters Norton (now in her seventies). In 1932 Warneke had a rough block of granite shipped from Paris. He would spend several years chipping away at it by hand, working from life and his own sketches. "When he needed a lanky youth" (Norton's words) to pose as the prodigal son, he enlisted Bradley's grandson, Bill.

That "lanky youth" is now a man nearing 80 himself. Bill Bradley of Randolph, N.H., fondly remembers his grandfather and the sculptor and family friend who immortalized the two of them in his farmhouse studio back in the '30s. Warneke, he says, was a distinctive-looking man with a mustache and a thick German accent: "He was a sweet man, with an artistic temperament. He was in love with nature and living things." Warneke's affinity for nature inspired many of his best-known works, from the crouching, nine-foot "Nittany Lion" (emblem of Pennsylvania State University) and the life-size elephant cow and her calf welcoming visitors to the Philadelphia Zoo to many small pieces now held by museums and private collectors.

Dan Bradley, whose facial expression as rendered in stone by Warneke reveals a combination of pain and relief as he welcomes home a wayward son, is remembered by his grandson as a "mild person with an obscure sense of humor." Of the elder Bradley, Norton says: "He was rather impressive, really. Here was a man who was quiet and strong and moral." Dan Bradley grew up in Bangkok, the son of a Christian missionary who also was a medical doctor. He and his grandson Bill represent several generations of ordained ministers who have had eclectic careers.

Warneke taught sculpture at the Corcoran School of Art and worked on large public projects during his later years, including many of the intricate carvings adorning the Washington Cathedral. Norton remembers her stepfather as a spiritual -- rather than formally religious -- man. One of the strongest expressions of his spirituality, she says, was his sculpture and carving at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville, Va. (setting for the funeral of Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke).

George Gurney, curator of sculpture at the National Museum of American Art, knew Warneke and admires his work. He considers "The Prodigal Son" Warneke's best-known work involving freestanding human figures. Completed in 1938, the sculpture was exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair and several major museums before finding a permanent home in 1961, when philanthropist Coleman Jennings purchased it for the cathedral. Gurney notes the complexity of carving two intertwined figures from stone, observing how "the forms almost melt into each other."

Warneke died in 1983 at age 88. His work is found in many places in Washington: Children climb on his "Tussling Bears" at the National Zoo, General Accounting Office employees ride in elevators embossed with his designs. Perhaps most memorable of the works he left behind in this city is his portrayal of father-son love. The sculpture's simple humanity seems to override its artistic significance. Says Gurney, "I appreciate The Prodigal Son' more than I used to . . . because now I am a father myself."

Gurney's words have a special resonance for me. My husband, Jim Choukas-Bradley, bears an almost eerie resemblance to his great-grandfather, Dan Freeman Bradley. And he has the same loving way of embracing our children. CAPTION: Dan Freeman Bradley and his grandson Bill Bradley posing for "The Prodigal Son" in the 1930s in East Haddam, Conn. CAPTION: "The Prodigal Son" at the Washington National Cathedral.