rembrandt’s prodigal son
There was no longer any demand in Holland for Christian art featuring saints, archangels, triumphant martyrs, or works glorifying the Virgin Mary, in the style of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Nevertheless, there was still an audience for themes from the Old Testament, particularly when filled with dramatic action. Benefiting from a classical education, and a good knowledge of the Bible, the young Rembrandt repeatedly portrayed the story of Samson and Delilah, with tremendous feeling for scenic effects. Please see also Samson and Delilah (1610) by Rubens. In his mature work, however, there is a change of attitude: the masquerades cease, a mild light envelopes the scene and, instead of pathetic gestures, emotions and religious substance make themselves felt.
The religious iconoclasm which occurred after Holland’s liberation from the colonial yoke of Spain and the Catholic Church, turned Calvinist churches into bare shells, dedicated to worship, preaching and prayer. Dutch authorities had no desire to decorate their places of worship with altarpiece art, frescoes, or any other type of religious art to speak of. Instead, Holland became famous for Dutch Realism – a type of small-scale, detailed and highly realistic style of genre painting and portrait art, much of which contained moralistic messages of various kinds. A third type of art at which Dutch Realist artists excelled, was still life painting (notably Vanitas painting), which also contained a moral, sometimes religious message. This was the nearest that many Dutch people came to “Protestant art”. It is therefore all the more surprising that a Dutch Protestant painter like Rembrandt should become such a perceptive interpreter of Biblical scenes.
The Return of the Prodigal Son is an oil painting by Rembrandt. It is among the Dutch master’s final works, likely completed within two years of his death in 1669.  Depicting the moment of the prodigal son’s return to his father in the Biblical parable, it is a renowned work described by art historian Kenneth Clark as “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted”. 
But he answered his father, “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 15:29–30, World English Bible
The father and prodigal son are in that ever-so-soft-and-delicate light of Rembrandt (not super-charged like Caravaggio) against the backdrop of a black surface (the light has, it seems, to find a way to ease into the darkened space). The ragged, dirty robes of the son contrast with the father’s ochre tinged with gold robe.
In another painting of this biblical story Rembrandt caught the prodigal son in the tavern. He painted himself and his wife, Saskia, into the merry-making of wine and song in a raucous pub (of course, Rembrandt as prodigal is wearing a sassy Dutch hat of black felt, with sword dangling at his side).
Art historian H. W. Janson writes that Prodigal Son “may be [Rembrandt’s] most moving painting. It is also his quietest—a moment stretching into eternity. So pervasive is the mood of tender silence that the viewer feels a kinship with this group. That bond is perhaps stronger and more intimate in this picture than in any earlier work of art.”
The Return of the Prodigal Son is an oil painting by Rembrandt. It is among the Dutch master’s final works, likely completed within two years of his death in 1669. Depicting the moment of the prodigal son’s return to his father in the Biblical parable, it is a renowned work described by art historian Kenneth Clark as “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted”.
By highlighting this complex moment of repentance and sorrow met with loving forgiveness, Rembrandt conveys a flood of meaning and emotions both personal and universal. The depths of the darkness and the brilliance of the light are his visual tools. Johannes Tauler, the 14th-century Dominican mystic spoke of how “it is in the mysterious darkness that good without limit hides.” Only from the darkest depths, Rembrandt seems to suggest, is there the promise of redeeming light.
Born to a middle class miller’s family in 1606, Rembrandt, like many, left home and went to the big city, (for him, Amsterdam) to seek success. His talent and skills served him well. He created astonishingly life-like portraits of the city’s wealthy merchants, shipbuilders, local politicians, and their families.