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The Prodigal Son

The Story of the Prodigal Son

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682). National Gallery of Ireland – Dublin. In the 1660s.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was born in 1618 in Sevilla in Spain. He lost his parents young. He studied the great Spanish painters and worked in his twenties for abbeys and churches. Somewhat later, in the 1660’s, he learnt to know the royal collections of paintings and its Flemish and Venetian masterpieces at the court of Madrid. In his later years he painted mostly in Sevilla and developed there not just religious scenes, but more and more also genre pictures. He painted scenes with the children of the Santa Cruz quarter of Sevilla as well as interior scenes of the poor houses of the town. The clergy did not commission these pictures. Murillo painted them for his own pleasure and then brought them to the market. These scenes of children playing together were so sweet, sentimental and tender, so irresistible that they became extremely popular. Murillo’s pictures were copied, engraved and spread in prints in so many copies that in later centuries they were considered tasteless.

Murillo knew the height of his fame around 1660 when he made the pictures of the ‘Prodigal Son’. At that time he founded a workshop and academy in Sevilla. Murillo died there in 1682. He painted a whole series of pictures on the theme of the Prodigal Son, seven of which are in the National Gallery of Ireland. But he returned to the theme and there is for instance another canvas showing the ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ from around 1671 in the National Gallery of Washington. The series may have been suggested by the similar life of a Spanish nobleman, Don Miguel de Manara. This man commissioned a series of religious paintings from Murillo and Valdès Leal for the Hospital de la Caridad R1 .

Luke tells the parable of the Prodigal Son as follows.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery. When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch; so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled himself with husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s hired men have all the food they want and more, and here I am dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.” So he left the place and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “ Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast. Because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found” G38 .

Murillo situated the scenes in Sevilla. The pictures represent life in Spain in the seventeenth century. Murillo started the series with the ‘Prodigal Son receiving his portion’. Then he painted the ‘Departure’, and the ‘Feasting’. The ‘Prodigal Son driven out’ follows. The ‘Prodigal Son feeding the swine’ is the most dramatic picture. The series end with the ‘Return’. The pictures contrast very much, so one might be tempted to date them over a longer period of years. But Murillo made several series of religious themes as commissions in short periods so that the scenes we discuss here also can have been made over a short time only. The first two pictures show brighter colours and strict form, more rigid figures, which point to an early period. The last pictures are roughly brushed and in more gloomy colours of the same tones. Which was characteristic of the older painter who lost patience and now gave pre-eminence to the expression of a theme rather than to fine artistry. So, the exact dating of the series remains unknown.

In the ‘Feasting’, the Prodigal Son is at a table holding a lady by the shoulders. He is feasting on a banquet. He is the centre of all attention, as a rich young man spending lavishly would naturally be. The painting is in bright colours and in the texture of the rough canvas. Murillo knew as any master the play of light and shadow and its dramatic effects. He used it to create depth in his picture. The music player on the left remains thus in the dark, against the white area of the table linen. This white patch emphasises the rich orange colour of the shirt of the son. The small dog peering from under the table adds an element of genre, as Murillo would develop in his later period. We find these dogs under the table in almost all scenes of the ‘Last Supper’ or in the ‘Wedding at Cana’ and similar paintings. The ‘Feasting’ is a masterpiece in Murillo’s series.

The ‘Prodigal Son feeding the Swine’ is almost a devotional picture and it could not contrast more with the ‘Feasting’. The son is now praying to God among the swine. He holds one hand to his hearth; his other hand is outstretched. The left hand denotes love of Christ and God the Father. With the right hand the young man shows in what sad condition he is. The gestures of the man in the two pictures, the ‘Feast’ and the ‘Feeding the Swine’ are the same: left arm bent and right arm stretched. But of course the whole scenery has changed. This ‘Feeding the Swine’ is all gloom and desolation. The sky is heavy and closed from the sun, the barn is in ruins, and the ground is dark and menacing. The man looks at long, thin trees that swing to the skies. Murillo has expressed the loneliness of a person who has been abandoned by everybody and who is entirely throwing his fate to the Lord.

The ‘Return’ shows the Prodigal Son being embraced by his father. The mother stands behind the father, which may refer to Jesus and his mother. Because the parable of the Prodigal Son is all about forgiveness by God. The parable of the Prodigal Son has also been associated with the days of Jesus’ passion between his doubts in the garden of Gethsemane and his resurrection. Jesus was in this dramatic period the lost Son of God, who only at the resurrection seemed again to return to the favours of his father.

The brother of the young man does not agree with the father taking his other son in again. But Luke tells that the father answers to his angry son as follows: “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”. G38

The parable handles a paradox in justice. It would be justice in our world to condemn the lost son and send him out again, so that the faithful son could be rewarded fully with the remaining heritage. But Jesus here stated clearly that God could forgive, thereby showing a justice that goes beyond our societal justice. Justice is needed, but forgiveness and confidence that no sins will be committed anymore goes very further. God can receive a sinner with joy. This message brought an infinite hope to people who committed sins and even crimes. They can repent, take on a new life, hope for forgiveness and change their ways.

The parable of the Prodigal Son was a cure for despair. The story could bring a spark of light to the imprisoned criminals, for after their period of ‘feeding the swine’ they could live a new life in the love of Christ. Christ could take them in and let them live as anybody else. This message of love of course was very much in contrast with all practices of the Roman times. The parable showed that the Kingdom of Heaven was for everybody, also for the condemned. Thieves and sinners could be re-integrated in a society whereas usually they were outlawed and signalled as evil for the rest of their lives. For the gloomy Murillo this must have been a very powerful message. He was a sentimental man who probably also felt lost and lonely at certain times. He may have painted the Prodigal Son as his own message of forgiveness and hope, his personal plea to God for being heard as an abandoned son and not forgotten. Murillo lost his parents young. We know the feelings of instability and uncertainty, the lack of self-confidence that can be created in orphans and that pursues them throughout their entire life. Murillo’s series is thus also a Spanish prayer.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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