Pa­trick Bishop’s favourite paint­ing

The Re­turn of the Prodi­gal Son

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - John Mcewen com­ments on

The mil­i­tary his­to­rian chooses one of Rem­brandt’s last works

KEN­NETH CLARK wrote in the book of his ground­break­ing tele­vi­sion se­ries Civil­i­sa­tion: ‘The psy­cho­log­i­cal truth of Rem­brandt’s paint­ings goes be­yond that of any other artist who ever lived.’ Of this par­tic­u­lar paint­ing, he wrote else­where that ‘those who have seen the orig­i­nal in St Peters­burg may be for­given for claim­ing it as the great­est pic­ture ever painted’.

Clark’s pro­nounce­ment was the sum­ma­tion of nearly 70 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence as both a man and an art his­to­rian. So, too, was Rem­brandt’s Prodi­gal Son a sum­ma­tion: painted in the last year of his life, pos­si­bly there­fore sub­se­quent to the death (on Septem­ber 4, 1668) of his 27-year-old son Ti­tus, the only one of his six chil­dren to sur­vive into adult­hood.

What greater para­ble of Chris­tian for­give­ness and parental love could there be than that of the prodi­gal ‘reck­lessly waste­ful’) son? It ap­pears only in Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32). A man had two sons. The el­dest was a model of rec­ti­tude, the younger a wastrel, who had de­manded his in­her­i­tance in ad­vance, gone abroad and lost it all on ‘ri­otous liv­ing’. He came home chas­tened, pre­pared to work as the low­est of his fa­ther’s ser­vants. His fa­ther not only for­gave him, he lav­ished him with presents and or­dered a feast. The el­dest son com­plained. The fa­ther ex­plained that his prodi­gal son ‘was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’.

Light em­anates from the for­giv­ing fa­ther. The other prin­ci­pal is the of­fended el­dest son, who stands look­ing con­temp­tu­ous. In shadow, an older man is lost in melan­choly re­flec­tion and a younger one is cu­ri­ous. A hes­i­tant young woman is barely vis­i­ble in the back­ground. ‘I only dis­cov­ered this pic­ture when I came across a tat­tered poster of it in a side chapel of St Au­gustin, our lo­cal church in Paris. Even in re­pro­duc­tion, I could feel its great power. It’s soaked in won­der­ful, soft light that gilds the face and hands of the pa­tri­arch, the travel-stained gar­ments of the prodi­gal and the dirty soles of his feet. Know­ing the work was one of Rem­brandt’s last makes it yet more po­tent and up­lift­ing. It glows re­demp­tion’ with love, hope and the prom­ise of

Pa­trick Bishop is a mil­i­tary his­to­rian, best known for his books on the RAF. His lat­est, Air Force Blue, is a study of the spirit and im­por­tance of the wartime RAF

The Re­turn of the Prodi­gal Son, 1668/69, by Rem­brandt (1606–69), 103in by 81in, The Her­mitage, St Peters­burg, Rus­sia

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