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The Parable of the Prodigal Son

For many centuries, the Bible has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists, poets, and writers. Without claiming to be innovative, we will see how the three great artists refracted the same parable in the crystal of their work.

The parable of the prodigal son tells us that the son left home, returned naked and barefoot. The father received him, ordered to kill the fat calf in honor of the return of his son. In the era of religious wars, violent peasant uprisings, Jacquerie and Bashmak, this parable was very relevant and two great contemporaries, Bosch and Durer turned to this story, showing us different facets and reasons for the appearance “Prodigal sons.” The third of the great artists examined here, Rembrandt, was born eighty years after the death of the youngest of them, Dürer, in a more relaxed era and his interpretation of the parable is much calmer than the works of Bosch and, especially, Dürer, saturated with tragedy.

Bosch the Prodigal Son

Jerome Bosch (1460 – 1516) showed us a young man who returns home, having been defeated in the fight against life circumstances. Let’s take a closer look. Tired, one would like to say “dear young man”, returns without making wealth, without bringing a young wife, hiding from adversity under the parental wing. This is clearly not an adventurer who is ready to engage in Landsknechty in order to make a fortune by robbery, which was quite permissible at that time. Conquistadors will not be recruited from such people, who will make up fabulous fortunes in order to return to Europe and die in poverty, on a pile of straw.

Rather, this young man left a completely prosperous family in pursuit of a bird of happiness. She might have taken the form of some beautiful girl in his eyes. Maybe he was unbearably tired of the burgher life, with continuous teachings, prohibitions, work from dark to dark in the stable, along with farm laborers. He wanted something brighter and lighter. These are all our speculations based on the pleasant, albeit sad appearance of the young man. The young man has only one foot shod, on the other just something in the form of a slipper. He has a wicker box over his shoulders, judging by how he crashes into his shoulders, the box is not completely empty. The young man has a pretty decent dagger on his belt. This is not drunk all the tramp and the drunkard. But his knees are torn, one leg is bandaged. So he’s going to lick his wounds. Where he earned the wound, we do not know. Whether he received it during one of the uprisings, or if the religious dispute turned into a fight, is now not decided.

What does he see? The picture does not show the joy of the household at the sight of the prodigal son. On the contrary, he is met with wariness and disorder. Perhaps he has not yet reached his court and sees neighbors to whom he is not interested, who are busy with their affairs, not paying attention to the devastation prevailing around. The dog barely recognizes him, she does not rush to his chest, as they meet a beloved master. The dog does not grind its teeth, but also does not show friendliness. The surrounding buildings are showing signs of decline. A few pigs and piglets do not change the overall picture. The shutter on one hinge, the torn roof, clearly indicates this. In the manger stands a “well-fed calf,” but no one is visible. Despondency and desolation blows from this work. This is a story about a house from which the soul has left. Whether Joy will return to this house, we do not know, it is also an unfinished story. The young man has not yet received parental forgiveness and affection.

Dürer: The Prodigal Son

Bosch’s younger contemporary, the great artist Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528), approached the parable in a completely different way. We do not know if Durer, who was born in Nuremberg, met with Bosch, but his engraving leaves no doubt about the fate of the House that received the Prodigal Son. At first glance, everything in the picture breathes peace. The same well-fed calf is standing quietly, pigs are feeding. In the courtyard, a rooster is swarming, ducks are splashing, but the traces of decline are even more pronounced than in the picture of Bosch. Trees and bushes on houses, broken facades of houses – this yard is clearly not shining with prosperity.

A middle-aged man who is standing on a knee in a pile of manure, in a parody of the knight’s rite of passage, but his back is straight.

About people like him, front-line poet Alexander Mezhirov will say, after five hundred years:

We don’t have to feel sorry
After all, we did not spare anyone …

His hands are clenched in a prayer gesture, his head is raised to Heavenly Father. But under his arm he holds a heavy staff, which may well serve as a weapon. This is not a young dreamer. His hand would have been more suited to a long battle sword, a sword that has done a lot of trouble. Not a fake sword of Captain Thracass, (Theophile Gauthier, Captain Thracass) or Scaramouche (R. Sabatini, Scaramouche), no. If not for the blows of Fate, he would not have allowed himself to stand in a heap of dung. At first glance, everything breathes peace and quiet. The Prodigal Son returned home, a strong male hand will correct the rickety pillars, close holes and life will go the same as before.
But this is only at first glance. The idyll is destroyed by pigs, the very ones that for the authors of the parable were “unclean animals.”

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