To my father Laurent Jean Marie Nouwen for his ninetieth birthday

Darton. Longman and Todd London
16th printing 2003

The Story of Two Sons and Their Father

Prologue: Encounter with a Painting

introduction: The Younger Son, the Elder Son, and the Father




Rembrandt and the Younger Son

Rembrandt and the Elder Son

Rembrandt and the Father

The Younger Son Leaves

The Elder Son Leaves

The Father Welcomes Home

The Younger Sonís Return

The Elder Son's Return

The Father Calls for a Celebration

Conclusion: Becoming the Father

Epilogue: Living the Painting


Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. The servant told him, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound." Re was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, "All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property - he and his loose women - you kill the calf we had been fattening."

The father said, "My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found. "


During my hours in the Hermitage, quietly looking at the Prodigal Son, I never for a moment questioned that the man standing at the right of the platform on which the father embraces his returned son was the elder son. The way he stands there looking at the great gesture of welcome leaves no room for doubt as to whom Rembrandt wanted to portray. I made many notes describing this stern-looking, distant observer and saw there everything Jesus tells us about the elder son.

Still, the parable makes it clear that the elder son is not yet home when the father embraces his lost son and shows him his mercy. To the contrary, the story shows that, when the elder son finally returns from his work, the welcome-home party for his brother is already in full swing.

I am surprised at how easily I missed the discrepancy between Rembrandt's painting and the parable, and simply took it for granted that Rembrandt wanted to paint both brothers in his portrayal of the prodigal son.

When I returned home and began to read all the historical studies of the painting, I quickly realized that many critics were much less sure than I as to the identity of the man standing at the right. Some described him as an old man, and some even questioned whether Rembrandt himself had painted him.

But then one day, more than a year after my visit to the Hermitage, a friend, Ivan Dyer, with whom I had often discussed my interest in the Prodigal painting, sent me a copy of Barbara Joan Haeger's "The Religious Significance of Rembrandt's Return oft he Prodigal Son." This brilliant study, which puts the painting into the context of the visual and iconographic tradition of Rembrandt's time, brought the elder son back into the picture.

Haeger shows that, in the biblical commentaries and paintings of Rembrandt's time, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and the parable of the prodigal son were closely linked. Rembrandt follows that tradition. The seated man beating his breast and looking at the returning son is a steward representing the sinners and tax collectors, while the standing man looking at the father in a somewhat enigmatic way is the elder son, representing the Pharisees and scribes. By putting the elder son in the painting as the most prominent witness, however, Rembrandt goes not only beyond the literal text of the parable, but also beyond the painting tradition of his time. Thus Rembrandt holds on, as Haeger says, "not to the letter but to the spirit of the biblical text."

Barbara Haeger's findings are much more than a happy affirmation of my earliest intuition. They help me to see The Return of the Prodigal Son as a work that summarizes the great spiritual battle and the great choices this battle demands. By painting not only the younger son in the arms of his father, but also the elder son who can still choose for or against the love that is offered to him, Rembrandt presents me with the "inner drama of the soul" -his as well as my own. Just as the parable of the prodigal son encapsulates the core message of the Gospel and calls the listeners to make their own choices in face of it, so, too, does Rembrandt's painting sum up his own spiritual struggle and invite his viewers to make a personal decision about their lives.

Thus Rembrandt's bystanders make his painting a work that engages the viewer in a very personal way. In the fall of 1983, when I first saw the poster showing the central part of the painting, I immediately felt that I was personally called to something. Now that I am better acquainted with the whole painting and especially with the meaning of the prominent witness on the right, I am more than ever convinced of what an enormous spiritual challenge this painting represents.

Looking at the younger son and reflecting on Rembrandt's life, it became quite apparent to me that Rembrandt must have understood him in a personal way. When he painted The Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life marked by great self-confidence, success, and fame, followed by many painful losses, disappointments, and failures. Through it all he had moved 6:om the exterior light to the interior light, 6:om the portrayal of external events to the portrayal of the inner meanings, 6:om a life full of things and people to a life more marked by solitude and silence. With age, he grew more interior and still. It was a spiritual homecoming.

But the elder son is also part of Rembrandt's life experience, and many modern biographers are, in fact, critical of the romantic vision of his life. They stress that Rembrandt was much more subject to the demands of his sponsors and his need for money than is generally believed, that his subjects are often more the result of the prevailing fashions of his time than of his spiritual vision, and that his failures have as much to do with his self-righteous and obnoxious character as with the lack of appreciation on the part of his milieu.

Different new biographies see in Rembrandt more a selfish, calculating manipulator than a searcher for spiritual truth. They contend that many of his paintings, brilliant as they are, are much less spiritual than they seem. My initial reaction to these demythologizing studies of Rembrandt was one of shock. In particular, the biography by Gary Schwartz - which leaves little room for romanticizing Rembrandt - made me wonder if anything like a "conversion" had ever taken place. It is quite clear from the many recent studies of Rembrandt' s relationships with his patrons, those who ordered and bought his work, as well as with family and friends, that he was a very difficult person to get along with. Schwartz describes him as a "bitter, revengeful person who used all permissible and impermissible weapons to attack those who carne in his way."

Indeed, Rembrandt was known to act often selfishly, arrogantly, and even vengefully. This is most vividly shown in the way he treated Geertje Dircx, with whom he had been living for six years. He used Geertje's brother, who had been given the power of attorney by Geertje herself, to "collect testimony 6:om neighbours against her, so that she could be sent away to an insane asylum." The outcome was Geertje's confinement in a mental institution. When the possibility later arose that she could be released, "Rembrandt hired an agent to collect evidence against her, to make certain that she stay locked up."

During the year 1649, when these tragic events began to happen, Rembrandt was so consumed by them that he produced no work. At this point another Rembrandt emerges, a man lost in bitterness and desire for revenge, and capable of betrayal.

This Rembrandt is hard to face. It is not so difficult to sympathize with a lustful character who indulges in the hedonistic pleasures of the world, then repents, returns home, and becomes a very spiritual person. But appreciating a man with deep resentments, wasting much of his precious time in rather petty court cases and constantly alienating people by his arrogant behaviour, is much harder to do. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, that, too, was a part of his life, a part I cannot ignore.

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 his 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.