The Return of the Prodigal Son

 

Rembrandt, Prodigal son
Title  The Return of the Prodigal Son 
Artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Date 1669
Info 81"X103"
Location Hermitgage Museum 
                                                             (click for a larger image click)

Above is Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son" now in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, painted a few years before he died. Many Christians find the painting moving and it is the subject of any number of emotional sermons and blogs. One Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest even published a book on how the painting changed his life, by encouraging him to finally accept divine grace and come to terms with his own homosexuality. Nouwen's position has many sincere adherents, but great works of art can support different and complex interpretations; a mysterious quality that brings us back, time and time again to the work itself. Flannery O'Conner, who also wrote about the action of grace on characters not very willing to accept it, once famously said about life in the existential lane,  "It is not true that life is one damn thing after another."

The painting does not reach out and diddle my heart strings; I became interested in the painting for another reason. For over twenty semesters I taught a college humanities course that included the Rembrandt painting in the teaching materials. Students were given the name of the painting and the artist and asked to analyze the painting in two or three paragraphs. As I recall, less than a dozen students ever connected the painting with the parable of Jesus recorded in the Book of Luke. This continually amazed me as most students in Kansas, where I taught, had learned  two unshakable truths: "Jesus is Lord" and "Everything is Relative." I assume they learned one truth in church and the other in public school. That these two truths contradict never seems to enter their heads.

But with that said, if you hang around a great piece of art long enough it will eventually pull you in. So here is my take on what is widely considered one of greatest paintings in the western canon. First, to make sense of the painting we must first read, or reread, the parable that informs the painting:  the  parable of Jesus from Luke 15. Here is a link to the  King James version.

Home is the place where if you have to go there, they have to take you in.

We all know families that have suffered and endured the alienation of father from son, son from father. Freud's work brought the age old problem to modern consciousness, taking his lead from Sophocles who dealt with the problem long before.  Moreover, if the father-son conflict is not eventually resolved it devolves onto the next generation. The Bible notes in several places, ' The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge'. On  first look, the painting depicts the Biblical  resolutions of the problem, but if we look deeper there is more to the story.

There are six figures in the painting. A vague female figure above and behind the father, another vague figure staring straight ahead, a servant with arms and legs akimbo seeming not to know where to look. The older brother is standing on a platform,  elevated above the other male figures. He is standing  straight up and seems to be thinking about the situation. The father, seemingly cockeyed, is either seated or bending down to embrace the prodigal.  Finally, the wretched hairless prodigal is on his knees and clasping the father's knees (the universal gesture when begging for mercy) seems to have his eyes closed. Notice the prodigal's sheathed knife.

The hands  of the father immediately draw our attention: the left hand is strong and masculine, while the right hand is soft and feminine. Next, we notice that the brother has the rational right hand (think left brain dominant) holding back the emotional left hand. The seated servant's hands, as stated above, are akimbo.

Many men play all three roles in their lifetime. The young man who squanders family money and comes to ruin, or near to ruin. The middle aged man who does his duty and insists on justice, at least in family affairs. The father who has grown soft and forgiving with with age. Rembrandt places the father and son to the left side of the painting, the older son on the right, and leaves a lot of  distance in the center, into which he inserts vague figures.

The key figure is the older brother. Who has already complained about the lack of justice in the father's decision.  Perhaps, he is wondering when junior's hair grows out and his pocket is once again full of dad's money, will he go off on another toot? Will he eventually  unsheave that  knife?

Here is a major consideration: If the older brother obsesses over the lack of family justice, will jealousy fester in his heart?  If so, will  the older brother pass that resentment on to his on son?  Will the deadly cycle continue on from generation to generation. From Biblical times, to Rembrandt's time, to our  time.

Young men will sow wild oats, old men will forgive, but the story hangs on the action of the brother. To break the cycle, the older brother has no choice but to accept the decision of the father, otherwise he will be understood as unloving. He must reluctantly welcome the prodigal and hope for the best. But we must acknowledge that the prodigal's knife is a worry; is there more mischief ahead?


Herm st pete Hermitgage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

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