Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Return of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most famous and celebrated artwork depicting the parable of the prodigal son, also known as the parable of the forgiving father, from the Gospel of Luke. Created near the end of Rembrandt’s life, the image is one of deep human awareness, mature spirituality, and a quiet invitation to contemplation.
Rembrandt invites us into the parable at the moment when the younger son has just returned home, broken and begging for forgiveness. As his father embraces him, the older brother on the right looks on, while their mother, barely visible, looks on from the top left. Two additional figures, perhaps members of the household, observe the scene.
The most visible faces are those of the father and the older brother, both illuminated and complex in expression. The father’s face is one of mercy: he is overcome with tenderness as he draws his younger son to himself. His face is both paternal and maternal as he harbors, embraces, and comforts the young man. His focus is singular: to love this broken, wounded, and tattered person who has crumbled against him.
The older brother looking on is a tour de force of psychological portraiture. As opposed to the father’s all-out, open, and self-giving embrace, the older brother is an embodiment of closedness and reserve. His hands are clasped in front of him, and he is at a safe distance from the poignant embrace between his father and brother. We expect to see a frown or look of disdain on his face, but instead, the expression of the older son is a face of deep sadness and self-awareness that reveals his gaze as directed more inward than out at the people in front of him. The older brother’s expression shows us the brokenness and repentance that we see depicted in the physical appearance of the younger brother. Both are aware of their brokenness, and this awareness has cast them down to rock bottom. Both will need the healing, forgiving mercy extended to them by the father.
Contemplating Rembrandt’s painting, one has deep compassion for the older brother. He is under the weight of his brokenness yet still stands apart from the loving embrace that would free and heal him. We pray for courage for him and for us too, to step forward into those arms.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.