PICTURES OF THE BIBLE  © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008






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The Prodigal Son; Julius Schnorr van CAROLSFELD; 1851-60; engraving from « Bibel in Bildern ».




The Prodigal Son




A young man kneels down before an old man.

The old man is his father; he receives, with warmth and joy, his son who is coming back after a long absence. But if the son’s position shows that he has to be pardoned for something, the father's face and gesture indicate, on the contrary, that the latter receives him with joy, without any reproach. The son’s misunderstanding of the father’s sentiment gives its meaning to the parable.

The father is very old and his clothes show his wealth. Rembrandt turns him into a blind man; which gives more depth to the meeting.

Filled with happiness by the return of his son, the father has a banquet prepared. One can sometimes see the preparations of the feast, in particular a fatted calf ready to be killed.

The son is generally ill-clad, in rags or in a poor man’s shirt. He has left his father with his portion of the heritage but he has lost everything by leading a dissolute life, then he has worked as a pig keeper… His poor clothes explain why some representations introduce a maid or a servant bringing some clean linen.

Another man is coming in the distance, back from the fields; he is the elder son who is going to be jealous of the welcome given to him. He can bring to mind Esau’s return in the scene of Jacob’s benediction (see the Benediction of Jacob).

The parable is rich in images and other moments can also be depicted: the happy son spending his money in the company of prostitutes; the unhappy son repenting while keeping pigs; the father waiting for his son coming back in the distance.






The Prodigal Son; Julius Schnorr van CAROLSFELD; 1851-60; engraving from « Bibel in Bildern ».



The Prodigal Son

The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 15

And he said, A certain man had two sons:

And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me. And he divided to them his living.

The son takes his journey to a distant country and spends his portion on loose living. He becomes the keeper of a herd of pigs and suffers from starvation. He thinks about his father’s servants who are well-fed and says to himself

I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you, And am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants.

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son.

But the father said to his servants, Bring out the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:And bring here the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat and be merry: For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. And they began to be merry…

But the elder son reproaches his father for this feast.

And he said to him, Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad: for this your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.
 (Luke 15:11-32)



This narrative is a parable, or “comparison” in Greek. It is meant to give a lesson thanks to a story and its characters.

Jesus often speaks in parables. (See also The Good Samaritan, Poor Lazarus).





The Prodigal Son


The Prodigal Son; Julius Schnorr van CAROLSFELD; 1851-60; engraving from « Bibel in Bildern ».



Two narrative representations; in Murillo’s can be found all the elements of the story, even the elder jealous son in the shadow on the right.


The Return of the Prodigal Son; Bartolomeo MURILLO; 1670; oil on canvas; National Gallery of Art, Washington

 National Gallery Washington



The Return of the Prodigal Son; c. 1450; pen drawing from “Speculum Humanae Salvationis” of Cologne; manuscript MMW 10 B 34; Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague



The son’s humility and the father’s happiness: Rembrandt ‘s famous representation has inspired Gustave Doré who changes the context.


The Return of the Prodigal Son; REMBRANDT; 1662; oil on canvas; The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

CGFA - A Virtual Art Museum



The Return of the Prodigal Son; Gustave DORÉ; 1865; engraving from the “Holy Bible”.

Education Environnement


Two more free interpretations. Jacques Tissot represents the whole cycle in the milieu of 19th century Nantes. Chirico stresses the contrast between the two men and their complicity regained.


The Return; Jacques TISSOT; 1882 oil on canvas;  musée des Beaux Arts,  Nantes

Réunion des Musées nationaux



The Prodigal Child; Giorgio de CHIRICO; 1922; oil on canvas; Museo d’Arte Conteporanea, Milan.

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum






The Prodigal Son; Julius Schnorr van CAROLSFELD; 1851-60; engraving from « Bibel in Bildern ».



The Prodigal Son



A “prodigal child” is always somebody who has left his family, a group or a community… and whose return is waited for with impatience, as by the father in the parable.

On the other hand, the adjective or the noun has become obsolete. It designates the one who squanders his wealth or spends his money carelessly, such a behaviour being strongly disapproved of in a traditional society in which thrift is a great virtue.

As for “killing the fatted calf”, the phrase has remained to designate a happy event or a very good meal even if the calf is absent.

This parable has inspired a few novels, films, operas and paintings which are more or less faithful to its spirit. The painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) has distorted the parable in a famous series The Father’s Malediction and The Son’s Punishment, in which the latter, when he comes back, finds his father dead.




BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008