The Art of Forgiveness: Visualizing the Prodigal Son Parable

But the father said to his servants . . . And bring hither 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.
(Luke 15: 22–24)

Parables—simple tales meant to illustrate moral or spiritual lessons—appear frequently in the New Testament, where they represent a key aspect of Christ’s teachings. Of these popular biblical subjects, the parable of the prodigal son, as told in the Gospel of Luke, is the most frequently depicted in Western art. The parable recounts the story of the younger of two sons, who, after asking his father for half of the family’s inheritance, leaves home and squanders his fortune, only to become a destitute swineherd. When the repentant son returns home, with the intention of begging his father to hire him as a servant, the father forgives him, replaces his rags with fine robes, and slaughters a fatted calf in preparation for a feast, welcoming the young man with open arms and great celebration.
These rarely exhibited selections from the Museum’s collections demonstrate the different ways in which this pathos-filled story has been interpreted visually. From Albrecht Dürer’s engraving to a photographic series by Duane Michals, artists have found this narrative—of a son’s descent into moral and financial bankruptcy, and his ultimate redemption through fatherly forgiveness—rich in thematic elements relevant to life and to the human condition. While some depictions of the parable emphasize its role as a spiritual lesson regarding the redemption of sinners and the grace of God, the narrative also has evolved beyond its religious context, with artists making use of its moralizing and emotional undertones in a multitude of ways. In these images, evocations of foolishness, regret, love, redemption, and, above all, forgiveness are given shape in a wide variety of media and styles, speaking emphatically to the narrative’s resonance with artists throughout the last five centuries.
Sarah Rapoport, Class of 2018
McCrindle Academic Year Intern, Department of Prints and Drawings