Return of the Prodigal Son: Meaning and Analysis

return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

Ranging from self-portraits to allegorical scenes, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn has made great contributions to Dutch art history. Rembrandt has a big hand in making the 17th century ‘the Dutch Golden Era of Art‘. Rembrandt had a way of telling stories through the subtle details in his work. Like most artist of the time, Rembrandt did not aim at portraying beauty and flawlessness in his work. Rather the emphasis was on realism and fine details. A large part of his opus is represented in iconic biblical paintings, etches, and even sketches. His work is characterized by a unique interplay between light and shadows and the smooth, almost indistinguishable transition between contours.

The Story of the Prodigal Son

In this Biblical allegory, an affluent man has two sons. The younger of the two had asked for his part in the father’s wealth, who later squandered it mindlessly on material pleasure. The prodigal son soon finds himself penniless after vicissitudes of fortune and turns to his father for help. He begs his father to take him back as a mere servant and falls to his feet. The prodigal son admits his sins, accepts himself unworthy of being his father’s son, and hence asks to be his servant. However, even before he completes admitting all his sins, the father accepts him with open hands, his return is celebrated.

The older son, however, despises his brother’s return and objects to his acceptance into the family without any consequences. Feeling unrewarded and undervalued he says:

Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him. “

Luke, World English Bible.

Here the older son says that he has been serving his father for all his life, for which he was never rewarded. However, his brother who left the family and lost half of his father’s wealth is welcomed with a feast. He enviously disapproves of a celebration for the return of his sinful brother.

The Return of the Prodigal Son: About the Painting

The Return of the Prodigal Son is one of Rembrandt’s final paintings completed in the year 1669. This oil painting is based on the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the parable of the two brothers. This chapter appears in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15. This Baroque masterpiece is now at the Hermitage Museum, Russia. 

The artist has used light and shadows to emphasize the most important parts of the painting. However he did not miss out on details even if some portions are in the dark. In the painting, you can see six human figures with the light source on the left. The brightest light shines upon an old man, dressed in rich clothing. He has his hands placed softly on the shoulders of a sickly bald man, at his feet, in poor clothing. He is one of the old man’s two sons. The other son can be seen on the right, witnessing this event closely. He looks at them with folded hands, reflecting his disapproval, even though no particular emotion can be discerned from his expressions. 

Even though the remaining onlookers are not very important to the story, they do make the painting more realistic. These three people have been shown in the darkest portions of the painting. Critics speculate that the woman at the back may be the king’s wife or a servant. The man seated in the middle may be an advisor to the old man as indicated by his rich clothes. 

The Hidden Meanings

The father gives an example of God-like mercy and the virtue of forgiveness, by saying: 

“you are ever with me, and all that I have is yours, but thy younger brother was lost and now he is found.”

(Luke 15:32) 

Thus, what demands a celebration is not the fact that his son sinned, but that he has returned and asked for forgiveness. This does not only point toward the virtue of mercy and forgiveness, but also the importance of accepting and correcting one’s wrongdoings. This allegory conveys the Christian idea that no matter how a person has sinned, God will accept and forgive a repentant with open arms. 

The artist has skillfully rendered specific emotions through fine elements and colors that may be interpreted in various ways. The salient features of the painting involve the usage of lighting to emphasize and de-emphasize portions of the scene. Lighting has been used in a way that it arouses selective attention to specific areas, however, the realism in the shadows intrigues the audience equally as much.

The silence of the scene is heard clearly in the subtleties of the painting and its soft contours. The warm illumination draws attention toward the Prodigal son, his ragged appearance in particular. Perhaps the warm light draws warm feelings of compassion towards the younger son. A prominent difference may be seen in the colors of clothing, especially the father’s red cloak that appears slightly orange mixed with a tinge of golden light and the son’s dirty-looking ochre garments. The skillful usage of contrast carves a deep impression on the audience’s memory. 

return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. Public Domain.

Symbolical References

In the painting, the father is a personification of God. His hands placed lightly on his long-lost son’s shoulders exudes a sense of tranquility and balminess. Even though no clear emotions can be inferred from the father’s face, the slight tilt of his head and tender embrace reflect his relief on the son’s return. It is difficult to discern whether his gesture is showing grief or relief. Small details on the father’s face such as his caved, dark cheeks are not just a reflection of his years, but also the time he spent worrying and grieving for his son. The way he is bent over on his son forming a protective shield is representative of how those who are in distress can find refuge in God’s shelter of mercy and love.

The prodigal son has his face pressed against his father’s body, indicative of his remorse and plea for forgiveness. Like all other figures, his facial expressions are extremely subtle but somehow his mournful side face manages to reflect his pain, through his closed eyes and unkempt self. The bald head of the prodigal son aptly depicts his lost self-esteem and his status as an outcast. Fine details like the discoloration of his robes and a loose shoe further intensify his suffering and arouse sympathy. 

The Fine Details

Another interesting detail can be seen in the father’s hand. His right hand appears more feminine than the left, with long and narrow fingers. It may appear this way because of the positioning of the hands but its meaning has been debated for years. The right hand represents the nurturing hand of a mother and the left represents that of a protective, loving father. The father in the parable clearly represents God through his God-like attributes, not just by appearance but also through personality. Thus, the feminine and masculine hands show that God assumes the roles of both a father and a mother for his disciples.  

Details of the Painting

Following the parable, the older brother, standing on the right is dressed richly like his father, expresses his resentment through his crossed hands as he spectates the event with almost no emotion on his face. The sharp arch in his eyebrows may be indicative of his feelings of disapproval and envy.

The Purpose of the Story

Scholars believe that the parable of the Prodigal Son was written to persuade the Jews to return to mainstream Christianity. Building on this idea, some art scholars have stated that the prodigal son represents the Jews who are presently lost, but now that he has returned he will be accepted by God no matter how he has sinned. Similarly, if the Jews decide to return to God they will be accepted and forgiven. Thus, by drawing parallels between the parable and their religious beliefs, Jews were expected to convert. 


Several other artists have painted different versions of this Biblical allegory. For example, Guercino painted The Return of the Prodigal son between 1654 and 1655. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo painted a different version between 1667 and 1670. All these paintings of the same parable have unique elements that distinguish them from one another.

Through this painting, Rembrandt highly dignifies the Christian principles of forgiveness, acceptance, and mercy with extraordinary spiritual depth. The expressive contours and colors evoke religious feelings with such simplicity that sets it apart from the plethora of Baroque artists of the 17th century. It is the simpleness that deepens the emotional impact of the picture in the absence of dynamic elements. Even though the emotional impact is strong, it is soothed and illuminated by the tenderness of the father, and the warmth of homecoming.

FAQs about the Return of the Prodigal Son

What does prodigal son returns mean?

The idiom ‘Prodigal Son Returns’ is associated with a person when they leave a place or a situation usually to do something others disapprove of and return feeling regretful. This phrase has reference to a biblical parable called the Return of the Prodigal Son.

What is the main message of the prodigal son?

The main message of the prodigal son is to emphasize the godly virtues of forgiveness, acceptance, and mercy. The parable promotes faith and religious feelings and also evokes hopefulness in a person who feels they have sinned.

How is the father depicted in the painting The Return of the Prodigal Son?

The father in the painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ represents God in human form. He exudes calm and balminess as his hands rest lightly on the shoulders of his long-lost son. The father’s face doesn’t show any obvious emotions, but his modest head tilt and loving embrace convey his relief at his son’s return. The father’s dark, sunken cheeks, for example, are not merely a reflection of his advanced age but also of the time he spent grieving his son. The way he is bent over on his son forming a protective shield is representative of how those who are in distress can find refuge in God’s shelter of mercy and love.

What type of painting is the return of the prodigal son?

The return of the Prodigal son by Rembrandt belongs to the Realism art movement. It is an oil on canvas work with an emphasis on the realistic portrayal of fictional figures. The painting has a portrait orientation.

Enjoyed this article? We’re sure you’ll love some similar articles. Take a look: