Rembrandt's  Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son
c. 1669
oil on canvas, 262 x 205 cm.
The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

 

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Rembrandt's final word is given in his monumental painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Here he interprets the Christian idea of mercy with an extraordinary solemnity, as though this were his spiritual testament to the world. It goes beyond the works of all other Baroque artists in the evocation of religious mood and human sympathy. The aged artist's power of realism is not diminished, but increased by psychological insight and spiritual awareness. Expressive lighting and colouring and the magic suggestiveness of his technique, together with a selective simplicity of setting, help us to feel the full impact of the event.

The main group of the father and the Prodigal Son stands out in light against an enormous dark surface. Particularly vivid are the ragged garment of the son, and the old man's sleeves, which are ochre tinged with golden olive; the ochre colour combined with an intense scarlet red in the father's cloak forms an unforgettable colouristic harmony. The observer is roused to a feeling of some extraordinary event. The son, ruined and repellent, with his bald head and the appearance of an outcast, returns to his father's house after long wanderings and many vicissitudes. He has wasted his heritage in foreign lands and has sunk to the condition of a swineherd. His old father, dressed in rich garments, as are the assistant figures, has hurried to meet him before the door and receives the long-lost son with the utmost fatherly love.

The occurrence is devoid of any momentary violent emotion, but is raised to a solemn calm that lends to the figures some of the qualities of statues and gives the emotions of a lasting character, no longer subject to the changes of time. Unforgettable is the image of the repentant sinner leaning against his father's breast and the old father bending over his son. The father's features tell of a goodness sublime and august; so do his outstretched hands, not free from the stiffness of old age. The whole represents a symbol of all homecoming, of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God's mercy.

The Parable of the Return of the Prodigal SOn in Painting

From the Renaissance the numbers shown widened slightly, and the various scenes – the high living, herding the pigs, and the return – of the Prodigal Son became the clear favorite. Albrecht Dürer made a famous engraving of the Prodigal Son amongst the pigs (1496), a popular subject in the Northern Renaissance. Rembrandt depicted several scenes from the parable, especially the final episode, which he etched, drew, or painted on several occasions during his career. At least one of his works, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, a portrait of himself as the Son, reveling with his wife, is like many artists' depictions, a way of dignifying a genre tavern scene - if the title was indeed the original intention of the artist.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

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The Prodigal Son, also known as the Lost Son, is one of the best known parables of Jesus. It appears only in the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament of the Bible. By tradition, it is usually read on the third Sunday of Lent. It is the third and final member of a trilogy, following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin.Of the thirty or so parables in the canonical Gospels, it was one of the four that were shown in medieval art almost to the exclusion of the others, but not mixed in with the narrative scenes of the Life of Christ (the others were the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Dives and Lazarus, and the Good Samaritan. The Labourers in the Vineyard also appears in Early Medieval works).

The parable begins with a young man, the younger of two sons, who asks his father to give him his share of the estate. The parable continues by describing how the younger son travels to a distant country and wastes all his money in wild living. When a famine strikes, he becomes desperately poor and is forced to take work as a swineherd. When he reaches the point of envying the pigs he is looking after, he finally comes to his senses:

 

But when he came to himself he said, "How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough to spare, and I'm dying with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.'"

He arose, and came to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
Luke 15:17-20, World English Bible

The son does not even have time to finish his rehearsed speech, since the father calls for his servants to dress him in a fine robe, a ring, and sandals, and slaughter the "fattened calf" for a celebratory meal. The older son, who was at work in the fields, hears the sound of celebration, and is told about the return of his younger brother. He is not impressed, and becomes angry:

But he answered his father, "Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him."
Luke 15:29-30, World English Bible

The parable concludes with the father explaining that because the younger son had returned, in a sense, from the dead, celebration was necessary:

"But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found."
Luke 15:32, World English Bible

The Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn

 

 

The Return of the Prodigal Son in European Painting