Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

Only a few works of art carry on in the minds of people from one generation to the next. The majority end up forgotten in the dust of history. The number of memorable art decreases even further as you increase the amount of time. For a painting to continue to impact people almost 400 years after it was created, testifies to its status as a masterpiece.

Rembrandt was born in the Netherlands to a Dutch Reformed father and a Catholic mother. He created The Return of the Prodigal Son, in 1669, towards the end of his life. At this point, he had lived a tumultuous, roller-coaster existence. He had experienced great wealth and financial bankruptcy. He knew deep loss through the death of his first wife and betrayal on the part of a spurned woman. He was the target of criticism from colleagues and church leaders.

Looking for extra reading? check out Henri Nouwn’s The Return of the Prodigal Son book. 

This painting captures the moment when the prodigal son returns to his father to beg forgiveness. The tender hands of the father rest gently on his kneeling son’s shoulders. The father leans forward with a posture of acceptance and love. It is clear that no matter what the son has done, no matter what mistakes he made, no matter how his choices hurt the family reputation, the father welcomes him home.

Rembrandt’s famous painting depicts more than a simple family reunion. To be sure, the viewer recognizes that something significant and life changing is taking place among the cluster of family members. The emotion is unmistakable and made even more emotionally full-bodied by its display of quiet dignity. As we gaze at the face of the father, we discern the visage of God.

One person who was deeply moved by this painting is Henri Nouwen. He first glimpsed a poster-version of the painting on the back of a university’s colleague’s office door. During this period of his life, he was going through emotional restlessness and spiritual dryness. What he discerned as he reflected on this painting was home. “The tender embrace of the father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment. I was, indeed, the son exhausted from long travels; I was looking for a home where I could feel safe.”

Home. Aren’t we all on a journey towards home? We all long to be embraced by our father. We all yearn with a deep desire to be home.

Although we don’t know much about Rembrandt’s personal faith, few of his writings survive, we can piece together a picture from his life’s work. His drawings, etchings and paintings give a good sense of what he held to be most important. His art focused on biblical themes more than any other genre. There are at least 500 drawings, 100 etchings and dozens of paintings that bring the Bible to life. In fact, his first major painting was a depiction of the stoning of Stephen based on the book of Acts.

It is worth noting that Rembrandt, unlike most of his contemporaries, always wanted to honour the Biblical text in his paintings. He always desired Biblical realism and built his art on the text of Scripture. This indicates that he not only was an avid reader of the Bible but that he relished the small details of the text. At a time when anti-Semitism was common, he read the works of Josephus, consulted with Jewish rabbis and often used Jewish models in his attempts to be authentic.

Over the course of his life, Rembrandt also painted countless portraits of Christ. He blazed a new trail in that he portrayed a Christ who is serene and introspective. The images are not so focussed on the divine power of Jesus as much as they balanced both his humanity and divinity. Rembrandt brought a unique perspective to the life of Jesus.