(Be sure to click on the link above and examine the details of the painting.)
Return of the Prodigal Son is based on Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son from Luke 15. (Read it all
!) Jesus tells this parable as a retort to those who criticized him for eating with sinners. The painting focuses on the moment at which the younger son and father embrace.
15 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
Rembrandt has poignantly displayed this moment. We can see the pitiful state of the young man with threadbare sandals falling off and a filthy, shaved head. His face is buried in his father’s bosom—the expression on it is both contrite and relieved. His awareness of his past life and present forgiveness shows vividly.
The prodigal son and his father are bathed in light, the visual focal points of the painting. The secondary focal point is the older brother. Standing back with hands folded, he looks as if he pities his brother, but is unwilling to embrace the wretched beggar before him.
What is the impact on the viewer? By creating a visual balance created by the three main figures, Rembrandt offers us a choice to identify with the prodigal son, the older brother, or the father—just as Jesus does in the parable. In life, we may find ourselves as the wayward son looking for repentance, the father forgiving as God forgives, or the self-righteous brother, rebuked for his lack of heart.
The power of forgiveness is overwhelmingly portrayed in this painting through the humility of the prodigal and the love of the father. The presence of the onlookers—confused, judgmental, and wary—keep this painting from being sentimental and instead present the viewer with the full import of Jesus’ story.