September: Creative Contemplation

The goal of contemplative practices is to develop deep intimacy with God, but sitting still and silently meditating isn't the only way to do that. Our unique gifts, talents, heritages, and cultures all contribute to how we uniquely draw near to God. So, to celebrate this (and hopefully inspire you to contemplate more creatively), each month we'll post a different piece of art along with some reflecting questions.

Some months this will be a song, a poem, a painting, a video, or a sculpture. Some months the piece will resonate deeply with you, some months it may upset you, and some months it may confuse you. Lean into whatever feelings the piece stirs up and allow it to draw you nearer to God's heart and expose your own. 

This month’s Creative Contemplation offering is a painting by Rembrandt called Return of the Prodigal Son. Arguably, one of his most famous paintings, he completed it just months before his death in 1668.

Rembrandt was a 17th century Dutch master renown for the emotion depicted in his paintings and etchings. Vincent Van Gogh  wrote, “Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.”

The Return of the Prodigal Son depicts the younger son kneeling before his father clothed in tattered rags with a bald head and filthy skin. He is embraced by his father whose wealth is evident in his rich red cloak and elegant layers. On the right side of the painting stands the elder brother, stiff and solemn. In the shadows behind are three figures – two women and another man. Scholars suggest the man is a trusted servant of the father and the women could be the mother and a servant or a sister.

Bring up the painting so it’s the only thing you are looking at.

Click here for Google Art high-res image

Once you have it pulled up, close your eyes and take 2-3 deep breaths, centering yourself and becoming aware of the presence of God. Then open your eyes and spend a few minutes looking at the painting.

Notice what stands out to you. Study the faces and body language of the three main characters. Observe the details Rembrandt uses to tell the story of each character.

After you have spent a few minutes observing the painting on your own, consider it alongside these questions:

Did you notice the difference between the father’s two hands? The right hand appears slightly smaller and more narrow while the left hand appears wider and thicker. Does one look more masculine and one more feminine to you? What could Rembrandt be saying by depicting the father’s hands in this way?

How would you describe the emotion shared between the father and the prodigal son captured here? Can you imagine yourself dressed like the prodigal son being embraced by God in this way?

Can you put words to the thoughts and feelings stirring inside the elder son here? Like the prodigal son rehearsed a speech to give his father upon his return, can you imagine the speech the elder son may be rehearsing as he’s witnessing this moment?

What is the Spirit revealing to you about your own heart, beliefs, and behaviors through this painting?

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son. 1668, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

This finished painting wasn’t Rembrandt’s first attempt at depicting this story. Below are three sketches he created over the course of his professional career depicting different scenes in this story.

Take a couple minutes to observe each of these drawings on their own.

Notice what stands out to you and what aspect of the story Rembrandt is highlighting in each variation.

What captures your imagination in each of these drawings? How do they make the story come more alive for you?

Thirty years before finishing Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt painted The Prodigal Son in the Brothel as seen below. The woman depicted is Rembrandt’s wife Saskia and the prodigal son is considered a self-portrait of Rembrandt himself. Between the time of this painting and the Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt experienced seasons of great wealth and prosperity and seasons of great adversity. Saskia passed away, as did three of their four children soon after birth. Rembrandt was a prolific spender and despite his successful career, died virtually penniless and was buried in an unmarked poor man’s grave.

Look at the painting below, painted over 30 years before the very first painting we studied above.

What stands out to you about this painting?

What is the mood of this painting compared to the earlier one?

Does this painting change how you consider any of the characters in the first painting? Do you have more or less sympathy for the prodigal son or the elder son? What about the father?

Rembrandt,  Prodigal Son in the Brothel  or  Rembrandt and Saskia in the parable of the prodigal son.  1635, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

Rembrandt, Prodigal Son in the Brothel or Rembrandt and Saskia in the parable of the prodigal son. 1635, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

Dutch Priest Henri Nouwen spent considerable time sitting with The Return of the Prodigal Son and it so affected him he eventually wrote, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (quoted in this month’s devotional). In it, he writes, 

Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt's painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.

Close this practice by thanking God for the way he reveals himself through his Word, written and incarnate, through the Spirit who illuminates its truth in our hearts, and for the creative gifts he gives his children to draw us all closer to Heaven.