Friday, April 9, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1669.

April 11 is Divine Mercy Sunday when the Chaplet of Divine Mercy is said at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. When I think of mercy the painting that comes to mind is Rembrandt's The Prodigal Son (above) (Luke 15:10-32), one of the most moving paintings in all of art.

Before this painting, Rembrandt had depicted the parable three times:

Etching, 1636

In this first etching, the emphasis is on the story in a stone setting with onlookers. A woman looks down in surprise from her window. The son is dirty and clutches his father. The medium of the etching encases the embrace of father and son in an equanimity of line with the setting.

Drawing with wash, 1642

Here we see a reduction of the scene from the etching. Observers are now limited to one innocent boy looking upon the scene with both interest and compassion. The equanimity of line has been replaced with concentration on the relationship of the father and son. The father's expression is more precise, and we are pulled more deeply into the emotions of their reunion.

The Prodigal Son Among the Swine, 1645

Rembrandt draws the starving son among the swine, at the point of apprehension of his degraded state.

Finally, in the last depiction, painted in 1669 as his life was drawing to a close, we see the father and son not in profile but head on, their presence isolated from their surroundings and intensified with color. The father's face is less individualized, as is the son's. They have become universalized; the son is no longer anguished but expresses relief in total penitential submission. The slight tilt of the father's head and his hands on the back of his son express his forgiveness and total acceptance of his returned son. In this depiction, Rembrandt has painted the unseen: mercy itself.

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