The Gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent (C) concerning the parable of the prodigal son has inspired a number of artists, perhaps the most well known is Rembrandt ,whose Prodigal Son in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg was the focus of Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, and the postumously published ‘Home Tonight’. These books provide a classic instance of a theologian bringing fresh depth and understanding to art history through looking and reflecting on art in the light of faith and introducing painting to a wider faith audience, too. However, Rembrandt was not the only artist to be inspired by the parable of the Prodigal Son in the 17th century. There were many others, including Murillo and Guercino, who painted the subject seven times. The way Guercino treated the theme changed over the course of his oeuvre and is admirably traced by Heidi Hornik and Mikael Parsons in a chapter of ‘Illuminating Luke: The Public Ministry of Christ in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Painting’.
The painting above is from Guercino’s earlier period and is his earliest version. In later paintings such as at Wloclawek Diocesan Museum 1651 San Diego 1654-5 he concentrated on the penitent son’s response to the love of the father and the steps in his contrition. These and other versions are painted in his later classical style. However, in this magnificent painting the focus is all on the Father. In this Guercino is close to the heart of the Gospel parable, for in the context of Chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel we can infer from the immediately preceeding parables featuring the shepherd searching for the lost sheep and the woman searching the lost drachma, that the focus in this story is likely to be on the seeker, the father, more than the son, or elder brother, though these are important, too.
Guercino concentrates on showing the father’s love, Christ’s image in parabolic form of God’s love for us, expressed through the urgency and intent with which the father is about to clothe the lost and found son in a fine clean linen shirt and bejwelled cloak. Both the servant and father are focussed totally on this, while the son, safe in the father’s tender embrace, is bathed in this expression of love. Indeed, we cannot see his face, the light rather catches his old shirt and the new, which seems like the baptismal garment of the new Christian. There is no central focus to the composition, which shows the figures close up to the picture plane and is almost cinematic in effect. However, it is the father who is closest to the centre, and he is the one who takes the initiative. Guercino moves the father’s head slightly to the right of the centre of the painting to give dynamism and lend dramatic action and emphasise his loving intent. There are other details, too. The father’s arm extends beyond that of the son as he reaches down, which may be an allusion to God’s coming down to us in Christ and the arm of the father and the servant form a cross, an expression of how this love will be manifested in Christ’s servanthood. Its a wonderful expression in paint of Christ’s parable about the love of God for each of us.