The Return of the Prodigal Son
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?
|Hermitgage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia|