Sunday, March 6, 2016

Illustrating the Parables -- The Prodigal Son

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, The Prodigal
 Receives His Inheritance
Spanish, 1660-1665
Madrid, Museo del Prado
“Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable:
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.


Peter Paul Rubens, The Prodigal Tending Swine
Flemish, c. 1618
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schoen Kunsten



So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. 
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Return of the Prodigal Son
Spanish, 1667-1670
Washington, National Gallery

Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 (Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 6, 2016)


The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the best known of the parables of Jesus.  It describes the way in which God is always willing to forgive the penitent sinner in human and understandable terms and reminds those who “are with me always” to welcome the sinner in the same way.   

Rembrandt van Rijn, Return of the Prodigal Son
Dutch, c. 1669
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum

In art, the Father’s welcome of his wayward son in an image such as Rembrandt’s is so frequently seen that we may stand in danger of overlooking it because of its familiarity.  


So, let us examine the ways in which this image developed and what other images of the topic may exist.

In preparation for this essay I did an extensive survey of the prodigal son images available on the internet for inclusion in this blog.  The images available come predominantly from the north of Europe.  I was able to find some Italian pictures but the quality of many of the available images from these sites is not very good.  Consequently, most images included in this essay will come from Northern Europe, where the subject was a very popular one, especially in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.



In the medieval period the most commonly seen images of the prodigal son told the entire story from St. Luke.  The images appeared in manuscripts and in sculpture and most especially in stained glass windows, of which there is a series in France.  
Parable of the Prodigal Son, Single leaf from a Psalter
English (Canterbury), 1155-60
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M521



















Ivory Casket Plaques
French (Paris), c. 1260-1280
Paris, Musee du Louvre














Scenes from the Story of Prodigal Son
French, 1301-1400
Auxerre, Cathedral of  Saint-Etienne









The Prodigal Son Feasting
(detail from Story of the Prodigal Son)
French, 1301-1400

Auxerre, Cathedral of  Saint-Etienne



















Prodigal Son Window
French, 13th Century
Bourges, Cathedral
of St. Etienne
Prodigal Son Window
French, 13th Century
Chartres, Cathedral


Prodigal Son Window
French, 13th Century
Sens, Cathedral



In the windows especially, probably because of their greater size, scenes are included that are not found in the Gospel account.  These scenes elaborate parts of the story that are barely described in the Gospel, usually having to do with the dissipated life led by the prodigal after leaving his family and his subsequent collapse.  

Among the invented scenes are those of the prodigal enjoying the company of prostitutes, playing games of chance, being thrown out of the town once his money is gone, even being set on by thieves.  













The Prodigal Receives His Share
German, 1532
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art







The Prodigal Bids Farewell
German, 1532
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Prodigal Gambles
German, 1532
New York, Metropolitan Museum







































The Prodigal Seeks Work
German, 1532
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


















The Prodigal Works As a Swineherd
German, 1532
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


















The Prodigal Is Given the Best Robe
German, 1532
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Additional scenes may be added regarding his homecoming as well, especially around the preparation of the celebratory feast.   Many of these embellishments had a long afterlife in art. 1
The Return of the Prodigal Is Celebrated
German, 1532
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

























Frans Francken II, The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Flemish, 1633
Paris, Musee du Louvre
In this painting, the story begins at the top left, where the son receives his portion.
It then moves to the center, where the Son takes leave of his father and family.
It then moves up to the center top, where he is seen feasting with bad
company.  Then it moves to the right, where he is seen pleading for work.
Then it moves downward, where he is seen tending the swine, then walking
towards home.  At the bottom he is received by his father and family.  Then
the story moves to the left where the fatted calf is being killed.  Finally, it
comes full circle at the center left where his father hosts a celebratory banquet.



























Embroidery of the Parable of the Prodigal Son
English, mid-17th Century
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Embroidery of the Parable of the Prodigal Son
English, mid-17th Century
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

























Another medieval way of telling the story was the typological approach, which we have seen before.  The Biblia pauperum or Bible of the Poor, was one of the most frequently read books among the laity of the late medieval period.  Generally speaking this book showed relationships between the stories of the Old Testament and the New Testament in the form of types, in which the New Testament scene is related to two Old Testament scenes.   The scenes chosen to relate to the image of the penitent prodigal son are a little different.    
Master of the Hours of Margaret of Cleves
Dutch, c. 1405
London, British Library
MS King's 5, fol. 24
Rambures Master, Biblia Pauperum
French (Amiens or Hesdin), c. 1470
The Hague, Museum Meermano-Westreenianum
MS MMW 10 A 15, fol. 35v
















Instead of two Old Testament scenes related to one New Testament scene we see that there is one Old Testament scene, one New Testament parable and one scene from the life of Christ.  The scenes chosen are all those that involve joyful returns.  The Old Testament scene is the meeting between Joseph and his brothers, the New Testament parable scene is the return of the Prodigal Son and the scene from the life of Christ is the meeting between the Risen Christ and his disciples. 

In the Renaissance and later periods the number of illustrations of the parable of the Prodigal Son virtually exploded.  It was particularly popular in the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), France and Spain.  But there is a subtle difference in what each region focused on. 

Painters in the Low Countries tended to focus on the riotous life of the prodigal after leaving home.  Scenes of drunken merriment abound.
Jan van Hemessen, The Prodigal Son
Flemish, 1536
Brussels, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts
Joachim Beuckelaer, The Four Elements-Air
Flemish, 1570
London, National Gallery
The carousing Prodigal Son appears in the background.































Palma Giovane, Amusements of the Prodigal Son
Italian, 1595-1600
Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia
Gerrit van Honthorst, Prodigal Son
Dutch, 1622
Munich, Alte Pinakotek






























Frans Francken II, Prodigal Son With Courtesans
Flemish, 1630s
Private Collection

Gabriel Metsu, Prodigal Son
Dutch, 1640s
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum






















His degradation as his funds evaporated, the misery of his life as a swineherd and his realization of his sins seem to have been more popular with Flemish, Spanish and French painters.
Jacob Jordaens, The Prodigal Son Tending Swine
Flemish, 1650-1675
Lille, Musee des Beaux-Arts

Peter Paul Rubens, The Prodigal Son
Flemish, 1651-1655
St. Petersbury, Hermitage Museum





















Bartolome Esteban Murillo, The Prodigal Son Driven Out of Town
Spanish, 1660s
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, The Prodigal Son Tending the Swine
Spanish, 1660s
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland



Anonymous, The Prodigal Son Tending the Swine
French, Early 19th Century
Chambery, Musee des Beaux-Arts






























Paul Vayson, Prodigal Son Tending the Swine
French, 1875-1900
Bordeaux, Musee des Beaux-Arts








Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Prodigal Son Tending the Swine
French, c. 1879
Washington, National Gallery of Art




















Auguste Rodin, The Prodigal Son
French, 1905
Paris, Musee Rodin


























However, it is the image of the actual return of the sorrowful, penitent son to the loving embrace of his father that has inspired the majority of painters over the centuries.
Jean Bondol, The Prodigal Tending the Swine and the Return to the Father
From Grande Bible Historiale Completee of Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), 1371-1372
The Hague, Museum Meermano-Westreenianum
MS MMW 10 B 23, fol. 504r

Illuminated Manuscript Initial, Return of the Prodigal
Italian, 16th Century
New York, Brooklyn Museum







































Jacopo and Francesco Bassano, Return of the Prodigal
Italian, c. 1570
Madrid, Museo del Prado
Guercino, Return of the Prodigal Son
Italian, 1619
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum




























Domenico Fetti, Return of the Prodigal
Italian, ca 1620
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen

Simon de Vos, Homecoming of the Prodigal Son
Flemish, 1641
Munich, Hampel Kunstauktionen

















Johann Carl Loth, Return of the Prodigal Son
German, 1647-1698
Vienna, Dorotheum
Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Return of the Prodigal Son
Spanish, 1660s
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland




























Jan Steen, Return of the Prodigal Son
Dutch, 1668-1669
Private Collection
Peter Brandl, Return of the Prodigal Son
Czech, c.1700
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts




















Nicholas Vleughels, Return of the Prodigal Son
French, 1709
Private Collection

Augustin Louis Belle, Return of the Prodigal Son,
French, 1782
Lille, Musee des Beaux-Arts





















Stanislas-Henri-Benoit Darondeau, Return of the Prodigal Son
French, 1840
Private Collection 
Alexander Maximilian Seitz, Return of the Prodigal Son
German, 1858
Rome, Church of Santissima Trinita dei Monti






























James Tissot, Return of the Prodigal Son
French, 1862
Private Collection
This picture, made before Tissot's travels in the Holy Land, has
an almost Wagnerian feel.  It could be set in the Meistersinger's Nuremburg.
Compare it to the picture below right, which Tissot made after his travels.















James Tissot, Return of the Prodigal Son
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum




There is curiously little difference between the iconography of the various scenes among all these painters.  Some have tried to see differences between images produced in the Catholic countries (Belgium, France, Spain and Italy) and those produced in the Protestant countries (The Netherlands and Germany), but these efforts seem pointless.  Though there may have been differences in the interpretation of the Biblical text between Protestant and Catholic theologians, primarily due to the different approaches to the workings of grace in the penitent soul, there is virtually no difference in how the artists of the two traditions painted the scene of the penitent’s return.2  

Rembrandt’s image of the loving father and the penitent son is as acceptable to a Catholic as to a Protestant viewer.


© M. Duffy, 2016
_____________________________________________________________
1.      1.       For details regarding the layout of these windows see the following websites:
      2.  Haeger, Barbara.  “The Prodigal Son in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Art:  
            Depictions of the Parable and the Evolution of a Catholic Image”, Simiolus:  Netherlands Quarterly 
            for the History of Art, Vol. 16, No. 2/3 (1966), pp. 128-138. 

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.


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