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

  • 9034
    Hans Sebald Beham, German, 1500–1550
    The Prodigal Son I: Son Asking for Patrimony
    x1952-3
  • 9058
    Hans Sebald Beham, German, 1500–1550
    The Prodigal Son II: Son Spending Patrimony
    x1952-4
  • 9061
    Hans Sebald Beham, German, 1500–1550
    The Prodigal Son III: Son among the Swine
    x1952-5
  • 9066
    Hans Sebald Beham, German, 1500–1550
    The Prodigal Son IV: Return
    x1952-6
  • 46963
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    Frontispiece, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1635
    x1934-315 a
  • 46965
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    Dividing the Estate, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1635
    x1934-315 c
  • 46968
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    The Leave-Taking, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1635
    x1934-315 e
  • 46973
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    The Son Dissipates His Fortune, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1625
    x1934-315 g
  • 46975
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    The Son is Ruined, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1635
    x1934-315 i
  • 46978
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    The Prodigal Son Guarding Pigs, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1635
    x1934-315 k
  • 46980
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    The Prodigal Son Prays, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1635
    x1934-315 m
  • 46982
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    The Prodigal Son Returns Home, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1635
    x1934-315 o
  • 46984
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    The Fatted Calf is Killed, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1635
    x1934-315 q
  • 46991
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    The Son is Newly Outfitted, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1635
    x1934-315 s
  • 46993
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    The Feast, from the series L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son), 1635
    x1934-315 u
  • 8802
    Antonio Gionima, Italian, 1697 - 1732
    The Departure of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1719
    x1951-112
  • 93347
    James Tissot, French, 1836–1902
    In Foreign Climes, 1881
    2013-114 c
  • 46574
    Jacques Callot, French, 1592–1635
    The Card Game, or the Prodigal Son, 1628
    x1934-244
  • 10177
    Lucas van Leyden, Netherlandish, ca. 1494–1533
    The Return of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1510
    x1960-1
  • 80934
    Albrecht Dürer, German, 1471–1528
    The Prodigal Son, 1497
    2012-69