When our spiritual travelers group recently visited the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, I had an experience that took me back more than 25 years. For the first time, I experienced directly Rembrandt’s famous painting entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son. This brought to life a book that I first read when it was published in 1992.
Of the millions of art pieces assembled in those galleries established 250 years ago by Catherine the Great, this work by the 17th-century Dutch artist became the highlight of my visit. I felt honoured when fellow members of our tour took my picture beside this masterpiece, which was completed near the end of the great master’s life (1606-1669). Rembrandt’s self-portraits and etchings based on biblical themes made him the first truly modern artist in art history to create psychological portrayals.
The Return of the Prodigal Son is a complex and profound psychological study featuring a father and his two sons—one who misused his inheritance but repented and the other, who remained loyal but resentful (see Luke 15:11-32).
The painting portrays the younger son returning home remorseful, seeking forgiveness and a restored place in the household. The father receives him tenderly. The two hands on the young man’s shoulders imply both a motherly and fatherly reception. To the right side stands the older brother, hands crossed in judgement and rejecting his father’s compassion toward his sibling.
Rembrandt’s portrayal of this parable reveals him at his spiritual peak and as beyond the competence of his contemporaries. It symbolizes homecoming and human darkness—as well as light and refuge in God’s mercy.
This brings me to my personal relationship with the painting, which began 25 years ago. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Dutch priest and spiritual author who is still widely read today. Nouwen was so taken by this painting that he wrote a short book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. He used both Jesus’ parable and Rembrandt’s painting as background for his book.
Nouwen would spend hours in contemplation before the work in the Hermitage Museum. He first visited in 1986 and was planning to make a return trip in 1996 when he died suddenly en route. This resulted in a surge of popularity both for the book and the painting.
As a study in male spirituality, the book has influenced me considerably.
Rembrandt was deeply and personally connected to his painting. Like the two sons in the story, he felt the need for restoration and forgiveness in his life. Both sons craved the acceptance of a loving father. Rembrandt, also like the father, needed to work through his feelings about the indignant son who stayed loyal.
I am enriched by the spiritual exercises through which I, as both an elder son and father, was led by Henri Nouwen. Great emotion filled my heart when I finally saw the original painting and had quality time to reflect upon it.