This morning I was planning on sitting down and doing today’s post, however I ended up caught in a conversation before having to dash off to meet with my Vicar to discuss ordination, life and the ways in which my faith has shaped me. It was a really valuable time, broken up by joining with a few others for the weekly mid-week communion service.
Whilst we talked, I couldn’t help but notice a large print of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. This painting is a favourite of mine anyway, but I’ve also had several people suggest I look at it in a lent reflections post.
The Vicar and I didn’t get a chance to discuss the painting, though knowing him I imagine that we could have done so for hours! However, it has lingered in the back of my mind all day long.
Rembrandt – The Return of the Prodigal Son
It’s often been noted that this piece somehow evokes a sense of kinship with the figures in the scene.
The Son is wasting away, his clothes, once of splendour and wealth, are practically falling off him. His sandals barely stay on his feet.
The Father stands over him, his left hand a sign of strength and authority while his right rests more tenderly on his son’s shoulder.
The light comes in from the top left, drawing our gaze primarily to this moment of reconciliation, of love.
Yet in the shadows, centre of the frame, the Older Brother lurks. This seems to achieve a couple of things. Firstly, for him to celebrate his brother’s return he would literally have to step out of darkness into light (a thoroughly biblical and traditionally spiritual metaphor). He seems less defined. The act of reconciliation in the light is a solid moment, just as teh gospel message is a solid and firm foundation for our lives. Yet the Older Brother seems to have not yet made his mind up.
It’s at this point that we have to wonder who we personally relate with in the picture. The scene, what we are looking at, is clearly the Prodigal Son and the Father. The other two figures on the right, either servants or family witnessing the Son’s return(?) or possibly (pure speculation on my part) a portrayal of the sinners and Pharisee being told the story?
In any case, our eyes are drawn to almost anyone other than the Older Son. If anything, he is the one who is watching the scene and has yet to decide if he will fade into the darkness and leave them to it, or to step into the light and join them. It is in this place of uncertainty, this implicit question of the possibilities and potentialities which we find ourselves viewing this painting.
As we reflect on the Father embracing his Son, we – like the older brother – have to decide whether we will remain in the shadows, or join in the celebration.
Do feel free to share your thoughts and reflections on this magnificent painting in the comments below – I’d love to hear what it means to you.