Paintings You Should Know: Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661-1669

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

– Luke 15:20

Jesus’s parable of the return of the prodigal son (prodigal: spending money or using resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant) is one of those passages which sits at the very heart of the gospel narrative: the story of a father who waits longingly for the return of his younger, estranged son, only to welcome him with open arms when he returns, penitent, having squandered everything his father gave him.

Rembrandt van Rijn produced what is perhaps his most famous painting some time between 1661 and 1669. It is painted in oil on canvas and measures 262cm by 205cm. It currently hangs in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Rembrandt painted with tremendous sensitivity for the symbolism of the story, in which the loving father represents God the Father, the Prodigal Son represents those who have chosen to live according to their own desires before deciding to seek reconciliation with God, and the obedient and disapproving older brother (the man standing with folded hands to the right of the painting) represents the religiously self-righteous who neither enjoy their devout relationship with God nor welcome those seeking to enter into that relationship.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this painting is the father’s hands on the younger son’s back: they don’t match. For an artist of Rembrandt’s tremendous talent this can only be considered deliberate, and the usual interpretation is that the father’s larger, heavier left hand (the one on the right as you view the image) represents the masculine, fatherly aspect of God, while the slimmer, more delicate right hand (to the left as you look at the painting) represents the feminine, motherly aspect.

If you look carefully you can make out the shadowy image of a women, presumably the mother, in the background: that she is not placed in a more prominent position may be due to the fact that she is not mentioned at all in the gospel story. Of more interest is the seated man to the left of the father. He may be intended to represent one of the servants mentioned in the story (who the prodigal remarks are ‘better off’ than he himself, and whom the father instructs to bring fresh clothing for his son and kill the fattened calf in preparation for a celebratory feast), but if so his attire is unusually fine, being on a par with that of the father and the elder brother.

The serene air of the painting, which centres on the tender expression of the father and the restful attitude of the son as he leans against him, makes it a profoundly meditative work.

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