which museum is the return of the prodigal son rembrandt painting in
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.
In The Return of the Prodigal Son – one of Rembrandt’s last paintings before his death – all dynamism has vanished. Like an Old Testament patriarch, the father lays his hands upon the shoulders of the shaven penitent dressed in threadbare garments. With his eyes half-closed, his gentle gestures command silence. The act of forgiving becomes a blessing of almost sacramental dignity. This is a portrayal of the utmost spiritualization, freed of all anecdotal aspects, in which all movement and action have come to a standstill. The elder brother on the right, with his remorseful appearance, had, according to St. Luke, reproached his father: “See, I have served you for so many years and never disobeyed your commandments . but now he, who wasted your money with harlots, has come and you have sacrificed the fattened calf for him.” Rembrandt, however, removes these words, allowing him to take part in this moving moment in silence. The scene is plunged into a cellar-like darkness out of which the faces of the father and his oldest son shine palely, their red capes giving this darkness its glow. Rembrandt, with all his mastery, did not indulge in artistic sophistication but produced a pittura povera giving predominance to simplicity.
The Return of the Prodigal Son demonstrates the mastery of the late Rembrandt. His evocation of spirituality and the parable’s message of forgiveness has been considered the height of his art. Rembrandt scholar Rosenberg (et al.) calls the painting “monumental”, writing that Rembrandt
interprets the Christian idea of mercy with extraordinary solemnity, as though this were his spiritual testament to the world. [The painting] goes beyond the work of all other Baroque artists in the evocation of religious mood and human sympathy. The aged artist’s power of realism is not diminished, but increased by psychological insight and spiritual awareness . The observer is roused to a feeling of some extraordinary event . The whole represents a symbol of homecoming, of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God’s mercy. 
Dutch priest Henri Nouwen (1932–1996) was so taken by the painting that he eventually wrote a short book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (1992), using the parable and Rembrandt’s painting as frameworks. He begins by describing his visit to the State Hermitage Museum in 1986, where he was able to contemplate the painting alone for hours. Considering the role of the father and sons in the parable in relation to Rembrandt’s biography, he wrote:
In the painting, the son has returned home in a wretched state from travels in which he has wasted his inheritance and fallen into poverty and despair. He kneels before his father in repentance, wishing for forgiveness and a renewed place in the family, having realized that even his father’s servants had a better station in life than he. His father receives him with a tender gesture. His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture. Standing at the right is the prodigal son’s older brother, who crosses his hands in judgment; in the parable he objects to the father’s compassion for the sinful son:
Голландия, около 1668 г.
Когда-то в молодости на одном из своих автопортретов Рембрандт изобразил себя — кутилу и баловня судьбы в расцвете славы и сил, с бокалом в руке и любимой женщиной на коленях. Обращение к сюжету возвращения блудного сына (Лк. 15:11-32) — это своеобразный финал истории. Картина написана мастером за несколько месяцев до смерти. В бледном, исхудавшем, усталом человеке, вернувшемся к отцу, которого он бросил в юности, трудно узнать бесшабашного искателя удовольствий, игрока и мота, выпросившего у отца своё наследство и спустившего его до последней монеты. Куда девались его самоуверенность и богатые одежды? Всё бренное спало с него, как пустая шелуха, прозрение пришло ценой потерь и страданий. Войдя в родной дом, больной и обессиленный, он падает на колени перед отцом, который склоняется к нему, полный любви и милосердия. В дымчатом сумраке пространства лицо старика сияет и на сына нисходит свет его утешения. Красная накидка на плечах старца словно образует шатёр над бедным скитальцем. Рядом молча стоят потрясенные свидетели. В Голландии, протестантской стране, где в храмах не было живописных алтарей и где крупные полотна на религиозные сюжеты создавались не часто, Рембрандт без всякого заказа написал огромную картину, в которой особенности зрелой живописной манеры художника, сами цвет и свет, приобрели одухотворённый характер. Он словно подводит итог своему жизненному и творческому пути, передавая себя на суд высшему милосердию и миру.
Biblical subjects were considered more worthy of high art at the time, but more importantly to Rembrandt, in them, he found a way to tap into the deep well of the spirit. Christ’s parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) is one that inspired the artist more than once in his career. His last great painting, completed shortly before his death in 1669, is The Return of the Prodigal Son now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Several eminent critics have proposed it as the greatest painting of all time.
“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), detail. Photo: Google Art Project/Public Domain