Our priest’s wife, Sandy Mc Namara, is a teacher and art historian. She offers this reflection for us in the midst of Lent.
Dutch Baroque artist Rembrandt van Rijn over the course of his lifetime painted hundreds of images depicting many Old and New Testament historical events, stories, and parables. Rembrandt is considered a Baroque painter, not only because he lived and painted during the 17th century, but also because his style and technique reflect many major characteristics of that period. Baroque art emphasized the theatrical and dramatic through focused use of strong light/dark contrasts, emotion, and dramatic scenes. One scene of Christ’s earthly ministry that intrigued Rembrandt was the instant when the two disciples who walked the road to Emmaus with Jesus, first realized they were interacting with their Lord after having witnessed his execution and burial. Rembrandt was an artist of human experience who loved to capture the emotional reaction of his subjects at crisis moments. He studied the human face, and attempted to depict the instant of epiphany and realization. This Emmaus event was a perfect moment to capture a sudden revelation of the human spirit. What facial expression could convey the very second when these disciple-friends of the Lord suddenly knew he was God resurrected?
In Return of the Prodigal Son strong light-dark contrasts heighten the dramatic moment. This late painting, probably done only two years before Rembrant’s death, depicts the moment when the prodigal kneels before the old man, recognizing the deep sorrow of his waywardness and grasping for the undeserved love and forgiveness of his father, who embraces him unconditionally. The elder brother stands with arms defiantly crossed in judgment at the right. Dutch priest Henry Nouwen, a student of this particular Rembrandt painting, interprets Rembrandt’s message:
Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home. (Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, 1992).
Another of Rembrandt’s notable techniques for depicting human psychology, besides facial expression, came from his studies of human hands. To Rembrandt faces and hands were the two features of the human anatomy that captured the personality. Art critics analyzing the Return of the Prodigal note that the father’s hands are portrayed with one masculine left hand and one feminine right hand. The left hand demonstrates a father’s strong embrace placed on the boy’s shoulder, while the right hand is soft and motherly, welcoming the son back.
The theme of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal is a profound reminder to all of us as we journey through Lent to come back to our Heavenly Father who welcomes us and to find comfort in our mother the Church who bids us return home.