Rembrandt painted this image of the Prodigal Son in the final two years of his life. This life had followed a story of riches to rags. His early adulthood brought fame, popularity and wealth. Yet this early success was followed by misfortune. Two of his daughters and his wife died; his popularity plummeted and in 1656, he was declared insolvent – his works were sold off at auction.
With this in mind, the figure kneeling in rags in this painting takes on a new significance. Painted towards the end of Rembrandt’s life, this is not an abstract Bible study in picture. It is Rembrandt painting himself, on his knees, at his weakest.
You might have a variety of views of the Christian faith – perhaps for you it’s the mindless drone of a mandatory secondary school service; perhaps it’s the initiator of wars of religion from the Crusades to the troubles in Northern Ireland; or maybe it’s a conservative, judgemental, reactionary force that has left you feeling nothing but guilt. This image captures Rembrandt’s understanding of the faith: a story of homecoming, a wandering child returning to a devoted heavenly father. Its power lies in the fact that it is painted at the end of life, the result of lived experience of faith. Brokenness is juxtaposed with intimacy and grace; the extent of the father’s love is emphasised through the embrace of his dirt-ridden, stinking son.
Yet this is not the only message within the piece. Though the viewer’s attention is drawn man who stands prominently to the right: the older brother. In positioning the father, God, as embracing the dirty son, rather than the slightly detached sombre man, his older brother, to his right; Rembrandt inverts traditional understandings of ‘religion’. Space is used to signify distance, emphasising paradoxically that the religious, well-dressed man is further from God than the broken one. Why is this? Rembrandt is perhaps stressing that, in his experience, intimacy with God is found through humility and not pride. He is also providing social critique: the contrast between God stooping to meet the broken man and the stern brother standing detached suggests that those who stand in judgement in order to have an aura of religiosity have missed the point. We are left with an image of a God of grace and a challenge as to whether we treat others in the way that the father in the painting does.
Sacred art provides a window into the lived experience of faith. Rembrandt’s image leaves us with a powerful, punchy message – it says that Christianity is a story of homecoming, a faith which calls broken people to love other broken people and not stand in judgement over them. I know that as a Christian, I have found this deeply resonant. Rembrandt’s portrayal of utter dependency and grace is what I need and what the Bible describes in Luke 15.