To honor Father's Day, the most topical paintings are perhaps those portraying the Prodigal Son, based on a parable from Luke 15:11-32. After foolishly leaving his father, the prodigal son wastes his inheritance on prostitutes and stoops to the level of professional pig feeder. Finally, he elects to return and tell his father, "I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men." The father forgives, orders that a calf (Luke's symbol, interestingly) be slaughtered and even instructs his other (now jealous) son:
"My son ... you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
Prodigal Son the movie would probably be an R- or X-rated romantic comedy, Bildungsroman and dark meditative piece all in one. There could be erotic scenes of the son groping prostitutes (including a particularly naughty 1637 painting by Johannes Beck), theatrical scene of the son being banished from taverns and dark and lonely Lear-in-the-storm moments.
After poring over hundreds of Prodigal Son paintings, here are five trends I've identified:
- Wrestling for Forgiveness
It's hard to talk art and the Prodigal Son without mentioning Rembrandt, who created The Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1669) and Prodigal Son in the Tavern (c. 1635), in addition to several etchings and sketches. The tenderness in the father's touch and in his facial expression that Rembrandt achieves in his depiction of the return is absolutely without parallel in art, I believe. The father simply looks worn out as he massages his son's back. Other sons are not so lucky as Rembrandt's (or Pompeo Batoni's or Bartolome Esteban Murillo's) though. The son represented in the Flemish 17th century painter's Francken II's 1633 The Parable of the Prodigal Son (at the Louvre, Paris) appears to be wrestling with his father in a manner that evokes works on Jacob wrestling the angel, particularly by Rembrandt and Delacroix. Are father and son reuniting or still struggling?
Not only do Prodigal Son paintings often contain depictions of pigs (particularly fabulous swine can be seen in works by Peter Paul Rubens, Albrecht Durer and Hans Sebald Beham), but there are also many dogs (which are relevant given their role as symbols of loyalty, and in turn disloyalty), goats and calves (which reference Luke as well, as in this Franciscan missal). One work by David Teniers (c. 1640) even contains a monkey. Quit the monkey business and the horsing around, the animals seem to be telling the Prodigal Son as he pigs out.
Fathers and sons are surely destined to clash for many years to come, which makes the tale of the Prodigal Son just as relevant as it was in Jesus' day. The narrative is as compelling in the form of a 14th century ivory casket as it is in a 19th century lithograph by the Kellogg brothers or James Tissot's series The Prodigal Son in Modern Life, which tells the tale in the context of modern shipmen. The story even works as abstract sculpture, as Constantin Brancusi and Jacques Lipchitz have shown.
Clearly the Prodigal Son is most relevant to Christians, but just as one can often find vestigial references to the Madonna and child in Jewish depictions of mothers and children, the same can be said of fathers and son and the Prodigal Son. Chagall, who famously (or infamously) turned the Crucifixion into a symbol of Jewish suffering and victory, also painted his own Prodigal Son. Many depictions of the Prodigal Son, like this one by Alphonse Legros, can easily be confused with depictions of the Wandering Jew. To many artists, the Prodigal Son has truly been an interfaith fellow.