February/March 2016 - Vol. 84

The Return of the Prodigal Son, painted in 1669, 
now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

- Master Painter and Storyteller

by Don Schwager

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 1669) lived in the Reformation era in the Dutch Protestant region of the Northern Netherlands (Holland). In 1631 he moved to Amsterdam and set up his studio and home there. He excelled as a portrait painter. He produced more than 300 paintings, a little under 300 etchings (prints made from engraved metal plates), and more than 2,000 drawings. 

Rembrandt was a master storyteller. Whether painting portraits, scenes from daily life, or stories from the Bible, he delved into the mind and soul of his subjects. He gave flesh to spirit. For his biblical subjects he often used models from the Jewish population of Amsterdam.

A key characteristic of his work is his use of chiaroscuro, a strong and dramatic interplay of light and shadow. For many of his subjects, the intense light emanating from their faces seems to come more from within rather than from any external source. His style is lively and dramatic, devoid of rigid formality. He painted saint and sinner alike with deeply felt compassion, and irrespective of wealth, status, or age. His wife Saskia, his son Titus, and later his common-law wife Hendrickje, often figured prominently in his paintings, many of which had mythical, biblical, or historical themes.

In his painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, completed in 1669, Rembrandt focused on the dramatic welcoming home of the wayward son by the merciful father. Here we see at once the dramatic moment of Jesus' parable: the repentant son who humbly kneels as an unworthy beggar seeking mercy and the compassionate father whose outstretched arms convey the warm embrace of fatherly love and pardon. The elder son stands back in the shadows, staring in disbelief and holding a knife, a suggestive image of anger, resentment, and a desire to inflict punishment. 

The dramatic light emanating from the father's face and hands conveys the warmth of redemptive love an unconditional love that pardons, heals, and restores. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest and author of 40 books on the spiritual life, spent several days in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia to study, reflect, and draw out the spiritual significance of the painting. Here is an excerpt from his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (Doubleday,1992):

"The longer I look at 'the patriarch', the clearer it becomes to me that Rembrandt has done something quite different from letting God pose as the wise old head of a family. It all began with the hands. The two are quite different. The father's left hand touching the son's shoulder is strong and muscular. The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal son's shoulder and back. I can see a certain pressure, especially in the thumb. That hand seems not only to touch, but, with its strength, also to hold. Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father's left hand touches his son, it is not without a firm grip. 

"How different is the father's right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender. The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality. It lies gently upon the son's shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort."

> See Gospel reflection on the Parable of the Prodigal Son by Don Schwager

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