“While he was still a long way off…”
On display at Acton Institute in Grand Rapids is an art exhibit centered on the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15. “The Father and His Two Sons: The Art of Forgiveness,” was collected by Larry and Mary Gerbens. It includes a 1636 etching by Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, a painting by American artist Robert Barnum, and a reproduction of Rembrandt’s famous “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” among others. Though the works span six countries of origin and five centuries, each portrays a scene from the well-known parable.
Winds rip trees from their roots. Branches are bent backward against the sky. Chaos rules as the wayward son runs toward his father’s farm in Robert Barnum’s Americanized representation. In the distance, an outhouse flies into the air. The son battles gale-force winds to get back to his father. The viewer can almost feel him being tossed about like a leaf.
Rembrandt takes us 30 seconds later in the story. In his 1636 etching, the son kneels at his father’s feet, but his father reaches to raise him up. The stone steps they stand on are firmly attached to the ground. The foundations of the house are secure. We can see great compassion in the father’s embrace.
Of course, the older brother, who has never rebelled, feels jealous and marginalized. In the Rembrandt, he leans out of the window and looks directly at the viewer as if to appeal to an unbiased fourth party.
And, after the homecoming, his self-righteousness is still palpable. An etching by James Tissot (“No IV- The Fatted Calf”, 1881) shows him complaining that his father has never honored him in the way that he now honors his younger brother. Larry Gerbens pointed out that the older son is just as distant from the family as the younger is; another Tissot etching shows him daydreaming while his brother viciously takes leave of his father. (more…)