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The Artist and the Art

05 Feb Spiritual Formation | Comments Off on The Artist and the Art
The Artist and the Art

What’s your favorite painting?

A few weeks ago I was asked the question, “What is your favorite work of art?”  I responded immediately by telling the person, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt.  Actually, it was an easy question.  For years now this painting, skillfully created in 1668, has been the most significant piece of art in filling my soul.  In fact, the painting is on my bucket list, and I hope to someday see it in person at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.


Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” is a depiction of the biblical parable of the prodigal son found in Luke 22:54-57. It captures the moment when the returning son falls into the embrace of his father. The first time I laid eyes on it I was taken.  From the amazing artistry to the story which was unfolding in the brushwork, I found myself inspired.

I remember being drawn immediately to two things.  First, the instantaneous forgiveness of the father and second the cold disapproval of the older brother.  They are striking elements that hit the viewer at first glance. However, there is a third element.  I remember a friend of mine politely prompted me to look at the father’s hands on the son.

Once I noticed them, I was forever changed.


How I look at paintings and how I view God.

This past week while reading Theology: A Very Short Introduction by David F. Ford, I was struck by the concept of “Human Subjectivity” within our understandings of knowing God. Ford explained that our beliefs, hopes, theology, and understandings of God are in large part shaped by the “practices of self” that we grew up with. Our upbringing creates a large amount of the context we use to interpret and understand things – everything from friendships to ministry, family dynamics to paintings.

Staring at Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”, noticing what stood out to me, I couldn’t help but think about how everything in my life up to that moment was part of how I viewed it. All of the experiences, memories, and relationships of my life were a foundation for how I was looking at the painting, what was speaking to me through it, and how God was using it to reveal Himself.

Three Characters.

The Son

Of course, the Prodigal Son is the figure we most readily identify with. It’s the character we’re most likely to see ourselves in. Desperate, wearied, abandoning his prideful independence, he collapses into the arms of his loving father. His long struggle is done and he finds rest and acceptance in forging arms. We identify because we long for the same.

The Father

Only a father can imagine what it is like to lose a son!  It is hard for me to even conceive of my son Elias walking away or being lost.  The father with great compassion and arms open wide offers instant forgiveness, something He has longed to express every moment his son was away.  The debt is forgiving.  There are no terms or conditions, he simply forgives. There is joy, happiness and most of all forgiveness.  A father who poured all of his heart and soul into his son for a good portion of life finally has a glimpse of hope.  What was lost is now found.

The Other Son

Off in the background a shadowy figure watches the entire transaction happening between the father and the prodigal son.  Darkness, hurt, discontent seem to jump off the canvas.  Seriously, what would it feel like to have done everything right and then watch your father bless the one who did everything wrong?  If you’re anything like me, I’d like to believe that I would be good with the result, but I’m not quite sure.  This distant figure is of course the older brother upset that his brother ever came home.  A brother is not as invested as a father!

Two Hands. Two Natures.


As my eyes turned towards the hands of the father resting on the son’s shoulders, I noticed that the two hands looked different – one hand was that of an elderly man but the second was that of a woman.  With great thought and intent Rembrandt depicted the actions of the father in two natures – both the strength of a man and the care and compassion of a mother – the result being a prodigal who experiences the incredibly power and tenderness of God.

  • What works of art have stirred your soul?
  • What might you become aware of as you sit and observe?
  • How does your experience of self affect the way you look at art and faith?

Want More?

If you’d like to sit with a piece of art and reflect for a few minutes. We invite you to check of the following:


Rick Rhoads
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Rick is the Director of the Student Ministry Majors at Lancaster Bible College. He has served as an Assistant Professor in Student Ministry at LBC for the past 7 years. Over the past 18 years, he has served in various Student Ministry roles at Lebanon Valley YFC, LCBC, Calvary Bible Church, and Riverbend Community Church. Rick, his wife Naomi, and their two children Grace and Eli live East Petersburg, PA.