Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Study of Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son"

Dr Abe V Rotor
Living with Nature - School on Blog

At the center of Amsterdam plaza in Netherlands is a monument of Rembrandt, the greatest Dutch painter rivaled only by Vincent Van Gogh who - two centuries later - revolutionized the romantic and classical schools the former brought fame worldwide.

The works of Rembrandt are distinctly unique. His colors are almost divine, combining warm and cool colors into something which make Rembrandt paintings Rembrandt - unmistakable, alluring, devotional. Painters all over the world followed his style, even up to the present. But none has ever claimed success. Rembrandt is original.

Juan Luna's Spolarium bears Rembrandt's influence in color, style and subject. Like the great master, Luna knew how to create special effects. For example the heads of the dead gladiators are smaller compared to their torso, creating a massive yet undistorted view, a kind of foreshortening effect. A diagonal perspective adds to forward movement, and common direction. A distant view of the mural draws spectators like Rembrandt's murals. The hidden characters (like in Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son) adds mysticism to the scene, combining romanticism and realism. Luna inspired people to fight for freedom. He influenced later works like Millets's Man with a Hoe becoming a model of ideological movement against social injustice.

This is where Rembrandt is left in peace with his subject and theme, for Rembrandt was not a reformist of this nature. His own way of changing the world, so to speak, through his painting is by love and compassion as shown by this masterpiece - The Return of the Prodigal Son - unparalleled, universal, timeless.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669. (262 cm × 205 cm) by Rembrandt van Rijn, Hermitage Museum, St. Peterburg, Russia. (Unedited as it appears on the Internet).

The Return of the Prodigal Son demonstrates the mastery of Rembrandt. His evocation of spirituality and the parable's message of forgiveness has been considered the height of his art. “Monumental,” is perhaps the highest praise by Rembrandt scholars led by Rosenberg. “The painting interprets the Christian idea of mercy with extraordinary solemnity, as though this were his spiritual testament to the world.” Historian Kenneth Clark, exulted the work, "A picture which those who have seen the original may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted."

It is among the Dutch master's final works, likely completed within two years of his death in 1669. It depicts the moment of the prodigal son’s return to his father in the Biblical parable. In the painting, the son has returned home in a wretched state from travels in which he wasted his inheritance and fell into poverty and despair. He kneels before his father in repentance, wishing for forgiveness and a renewed place in the family, having realized that even his father's servants had a better station in life than he. His father receives him with a tender gesture. His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son's shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture.

A stream of light bathes the whole body of the repentant son, and strikes directly the face of his father in anguish and joy. The light extends to reveal the expression of the face of the older brother (standing at right) pathetic but unmoved as his body is unbent, and his hands freely crossed over a guided cane which is symbol of authority and affluence to. This further projects extreme comparison. With worn out sandals, one foot bare, clothes tattered , and head shaven - all makes wretchedness real. Rembrandt purposely hid the other characters in dim light and little details to focus the singular encounter. Yet viewers have the idea who they are in their own guesses and conclusions as they contemplate on the painting.

This is the same photo as above with Adobe Photoshop editing on lighting and contrast to show a clearer background in order to expose the characters. The woman at top left, barely visible, is likely the mother, while the seated man, whose dress implies wealth, may be an advisor to the estate or a tax collector.The standing man at center is likely a servant.

The prodigal son's older brother crosses his hands in judgment. In the parable he objects to the father's compassion for the sinful son.

But he answered his father, "Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him." (Luke 15:29–30).

The father explains, "But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:32). World English Bible.

Rembrandt was moved by the parable, that he made a variety of drawings, etchings, and paintings on the theme that spanned decades, beginning with this 1636 etching.

Dutch priest Henri Nouwen (1932–1996) was so taken by the painting that he eventually wrote a short book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (1992), using the parable and Rembrandt's painting as frameworks. He begins by describing his visit to the State Hermitage Museum in 1986, where he was able to contemplate on the painting alone for hours. Considering the role of the father and sons in the parable in relation to Rembrandt's biography, he wrote:

Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt's painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home. (Wikipedia)

Pope Francis' 100-page new book released in 86 countries (12 Jan 2016), to start the Francis Holy Year of Mercy The Holy Father criticized the self-proclaimed righteous, the doctrinaire-minded rigorists, the scholars of the church laws and rules, who in the long history of the church have challenged Christ's unconditional love and mercy. He offered "We must avaoid the attitude of someone who judges and condemns from the lofty heights of his own certainty, looking for the splinter in his brother;s eye while remaining unaware of the beam in his own." Pope Francis said

Which leads us to ponder on the deeper sense of sin which is pride and unforgiving attitude of the "righteous" brother over his returning prodigal brother. And on the part of the mother, what role had she as a mother? How about the wealthy guest, who apparently like the mother were unmoved, indifferent, cold?

The book rallies the church and her leaders to go out from the confines of the altar and pulpit, to reach out for the needy, the suffering, the hopeless.

To quote Pope Francis in his new book:

“I often say that in order for this to happen, it is necessary to go out: to go out from the churches and the parishes, to go outside and look for people where they live, where they suffer, and where they hope. I like to use the image of a field hospital to describe this “Church that goes forth”. It exists where there is combat. It is not a solid structure with all the equipment where people go to receive treatment for both small and large infirmities. It is a mobile structure that offers first aid and immediate care, so that its soldiers do not die.”

“It is a place for urgent care, not a place to see a specialist. I hope that the Jubilee [The Holy Year of Mercy] will serve to reveal the Church’s deeply maternal and merciful side, a Church that goes forth toward those who are “wounded,” who are in need of an attentive ear, understanding, forgiveness, and love.”

Which leads us back to The Prodigal Son. Wouldn't the father have taken the road to look for his prodigal son? A good father is not only forgiving, he is a missionary. Thousands, nay, millions out there are proverbial prodigal sons. ~

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