Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - The Return of the Prodigal Son

by Alexandra Tuschka


A father who had two sons paid the younger one his inheritance at his request. He squandered the money on whores and in taverns. When he had no more money, he had to work as a swineherd. Among the pigs, he came to the realization that he should repent and return to his father and earn a meager living as a day laborer. When he stood in front of his father's house, the latter received him very warmly and had a feast celebrated. His other son, however, became angry because he had always been faithful to the father and was not given a good lamb and good clothes. Thereupon the father says: "My son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But you should be cheerful and of good cheer; for this your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and is found."

"The Prodigal Son" is the third of the three parables of the prodigal and is found in Luke, chapter15. While the first parable of the lost sheep is taken up again in the "good shepherd", the second of the "lost penny" was represented only very rarely, the "lost son" became extremely popular and has been represented in the visual arts in many episodes. Up to 14 scenes can be divided here. The return and resumption, of course, represents the essence of this story, because it is a parable of true forgiveness after repentance. This is expressed very clearly by the prodigal son kneeling and praying arms.


Murillo adheres to many details of the Bible in his depiction. The father takes the son in his arms. They are arranged centrally in the center of the picture and together form a triangular composition. The old man's heavy coat contrasts sharply with the son's tattered clothing. Despite a lack of hygiene and dirty feet, the father accepts him without hesitation. From the left, the butcher brings the best calf, which is sacrificed for the celebration. Further, two servants come to bring the jewelry and fine clothing for the prodigal son to put on. One of them even holds a ring in his fingers for him. The whole thing happens again to the chagrin of the envious brother, who is probably represented here in the man on the far right in the dark. A white puppy - a symbol of domesticity - reinforces the joy of reunion by its barking and creates a little dynamic.


Due to the clear division of the picture background into two parts, the scene has something stage-like. Murillo has not clearly formulated the background. Rather, the clouds, columns and architecture appear rather homogeneous as a gray surface with little contrast. "The Return of the Prodigal Son" was one of eight huge canvases painted for the church of Saint George Hospital in Seville, a hospice for the homeless and hungry. This conveyed to them, even in their darkest hour, that returning to God's arms is possible at any time. A very comforting thought, to be sure. 


Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - The Return of the Prodigal Son

Oil on canvas, 1667, 236 x 262 cm, National Gallery in London