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Henri Nouwen and Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Rembrandt`s “Return of the prodigal son,” painted in 1668 toward the end of his life, and now hanging in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, is a truly astounding work of sacred art. I have not yet seen the original (it is a large painting 8” by 6”), but even the prints convey that which is almost inexpressible.

Others have painted this incredible gospel parable in Luke 15 many times; Rembrandt’s version stands out, however, from all the others (including James Tisor’s The prodigal son in modern life: the return, painted around 1882, which portrays the son as a wayward sailor returned to his father’s arms on a dock somewhere).

The father and prodigal son are in that ever-so-soft-and-delicate light of Rembrandt (not super-charged like Caravaggio) against the backdrop of a black surface (the light has, it seems, to find a way to ease into the darkened space). The ragged, dirty robes of the son contrast with the father’s ochre tinged with gold robe.

One can move downward from the light on the father’s face to the son’s feet, filthy, with one sandal lying on the floor. The son is almost bald and repellant: he has squandered his inheritance and has even descended so far into degradation that he wallowed with the pigs.

In another painting of this biblical story Rembrandt caught the prodigal son in the tavern. He painted himself and his wife, Saskia, into the merry-making of wine and song in a raucous pub (of course, Rembrandt as prodigal is wearing a sassy Dutch hat of black felt, with sword dangling at his side).

There are sketches, too, of scenes from the story. Albrecht Durer sketched The prodigal son among the pigs in 1496. This sketch sets the prodigal son smack in the middle of a pig’s trough. These pigs, and their piglets, have the largest snouts I have ever seen. Durer is a matchless wood-cut artist and crafter of sketches.

But it is the father’s features that mesmerize me in the Rembrandt painting, perhaps the way Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa still strikes silent awe in our hearts. How could he paint such an enigmatic smile? Rembrandt’s solemn scene of wondrous reconciliation paints the father’s look with such utter tenderness, compassion and love.

Part of the way he does this is by the contrasting light on the old man’s eyes: his left shaded with black, the right eye full of light, the head tilted to the left, the arms extending out of the scarlet robe (revealing extraordinarily beautiful undergarments) and hands placed with utmost tenderness on the son’s back (his head, though turned, is resting on his father’s chest).

Rembrandt has caught the moment when the father has just so, so carefully placed his hands on the son. One can almost imagine that this dirty wayward prodigal had just walked in, and the father moves to meet him, with the son falling at his father’s feet. The psychological depth of this painting is remarkable. The son has come home, the feast is about to begin.

But Rembrandt does not forget the elder brother. He is the “good son” who stands at the side to his father’s left, with two figures, barely visible, in between (another stands behind the father). The light is on the elder son’s face. Unlike his brother, he is standing, hands folded, a walking cane in his front. A red cape drapes his shoulders. He doesn’t seem particularly overjoyed.

The universal meaning of this unsurpassable painting is that light flows into the darkness and sin-weariness of the world though compassion that accepted the wounded and humiliated with total encompassing. The father embraces the wayward one without question.

In his lovely little book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: a story of homecoming (1994), Henri Nouwen, the contemplative priest and spiritual director, tells of his encounter with Rembrandt’s Prodigal sonHis story began in the fall of 1983 in the village of Trosly, where he had been spending time at L’Arche, the community founded by Jean Vanier for mentally handicapped people.

Henri had been travelling around the US lecturing and protesting the war in Central America. He was bone-weary and restless and needy. One day he went over to visit Simone Landrien in the community’s documentation centre. In his words, “As we spoke, my eyes fell on a large poster pinned on her door. I saw a man in a great red cloak tenderly touching the shoulders of disheveled boy kneeling before him. I could not take my eyes away.

“I felt drawn by the intimacy between the three figures (one, very, very faint), the war red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light engulfing them both. But, most of all, it was the hands—the old man’s hands—as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before.”

Immediately Henri wanted to get a copy—at Simone’s insistence. The picture stayed with him over the years. There is little doubt that for Nouwen, the coming home to a secure and safe place swelled up from his spiritual depths. Three years later, Henri had opportunity to visit the Hermitage in St. Petersburg where he saw the original painting for the first time.

“I was stunned by its majestic beauty. Its size, larger than life; its abundant reds, browns, and yellow, its shadowy recesses and bright foreground, but most of all the light-enveloped embrace of father and son surrounded by four mysterious bystanders, all of this gripped me with an intensity far beyond my anticipation. There had been moments in which I had wondered whether the real painting might disappoint me. The opportunity was true. Its grandeur and splendour made everything recede into the background and held me completely. Coming here was indeed a homecoming.”

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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