When I chose the artwork for the cover of the 2014 edition of The Psychology of Jesus, I picked this painting by Bartolome’ Esteban Murillo.
To me the subject of the painting and the story it tells is obvious. To my surprise, even the most Biblically literate have not immediately recognized this story brought to art by Murillo. I even asked my son, “Who is in this painting?” Not knowing what to answer, he gave the answer most twelve-year-old pastor’s sons would offer, “God.” The painting’s subject matter is given away in the title, “The Return of The Prodigal.” Painted later in his life, Murillo was part of the Brotherhood of Charity. The group felt that charity was the only activity that people could do which touched the heart of God and eternity. All accumulating, whether power, wealthy, or even knowledge was temporary and lost in death. They highlighted seven acts of charity and mercy. Besides, retelling the story of the prodigal, Murillo’s painting highlighted the act of clothing the naked visually clear in the large pile of clothes the servant holds for the son.
Murillo illustrated the full breadth of Jesus’ parable. Here are the paintings he used to tell the story, all completed ten years before the end of the story painted above.
This is the first in the story, harder to see than the others. It is The Prodigal Son Receives His Rightful Inheritance. The parable tells of this younger son asking for what he believes is his ‘right’ or ‘what’s coming to him’. The wordplay sets up the ending where he doesn’t get what is rightfully coming to him but receives his father’s grace and mercy instead.
Here in The Departure of the Prodigal the now-wealthy son leaves high on his horse. His father’s hand extends toward his son, but it doesn’t result in any pause by the prodigal. Perhaps the boy thinks of it later.
Here is The Prodigal Son Feasting with Courtesans. The title shows the relationship is one based on the son’s wealth and will dissolve with the money.
As expected, The Prodigal Son Driven Out is the result of one who brought money to spend, but once it is gone, he can’t pay his debts. The driving out is expected from this community. It is also expected by the son when he gets home. He shamed his father, and for those in his village, he committed the sin of taking money and squandering it in a foreign town.
Here is the son’s ‘rock bottom’ in The Prodigal Son Feeding Swine. Not only has this Jew taken a job feeding the unclean pigs, he’s envious of what they have to eat. Such a rock bottom will drive any person to their knees as well as cause you to rethink your former role, even as ‘younger’ son.
Here is Murillo’s first version of The Return of the Prodigal Son painted in 1660. The boy kneels to his father who struggles to raise him up. Even as rebellious as he had chosen to be, his father’s love had not ceased. His identity didn’t change with his actions. Ten years later, Murillo repainted the reunion.
In this version of The Return of the Prodigal painted in 1670, the Father seems not to be lifting up his son as much as trying to pull him closer in an embrace. Art experts point out that the clouds are not dark indicating a storm but Murillo chose warm colors as even the clouds seem to be embracing the wayfaring boy returned home. When Jesus told this story and Murillo painted it, they sought to capture a love so broad as Paul described, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Though surprised at his answer, when I asked my son who was the subject represented on my book’s new cover, “God, was the right answer.
To see inside and read more reflection on Jesus’ and God’s way in the world in The Psychology of Jesus, click the cover.