The Family Project > Art > Session Nine: Art History and Background

Session Nine: Art History and Background

Murillo's "Return of the Prodigal Son"

Image 9-1: Couple Receiving a Child from the Holy Trinity

"Couple Receiving a Child from the Holy Trinity"


Couple Receiving a Child from the Holy Trinity

Taken from The Book Which Among Other Matters Deals with the Birth of Our Lord Christ, His Life, His Passion… vol. II, 15th century


We considered this painting previously, during our discussion of how the family completes the image of God in creation. But it also has dramatic implications for each of us as the child of our mother and father.

Quite simply, God is the Author of life. And not just “God” in a broad sense, but the triune Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is why we read in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” (emphasis added). Every child bears this image, and is a divine statement of blessing proceeding from the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Image 9-2: First Steps

Vincent van Gogh's "First Steps"


Vincent van Gogh, First Steps, after Millet (1890)

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


In Van Gogh’s beautiful work, we see a mother and father taking time from their labors—his gardening and her hanging out wash to dry—in order to encourage their child as she learns to walk. Here is a classic portrayal of a humble earthly “trinity,” enjoying one another’s company and marveling at one another’s existence.

Image 9-3: Massacre of the Innocents

Giotto's "The Massacre of the Innocents"


Giotto, Massacre of the Innocents, (1305)

Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy.


Giotto, a famed painter from Florence at the end of the Middle Ages, incorporated this tragic scene into his most ambitious and noted project, the interior of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Veneto, Italy. He provided this image—which depicts the slaughter of children under the orders of King Herod, who was determined to exterminate the recently born King of the Jews—to remind us of the import of Christ’s birth and to demonstrate how God saw to it that the coming of our Savior would not be thwarted even by such a demonic holocaust. Here we see Herod overseeing the great massacre while many mothers helplessly try to save their babies. Some of the citizens have turned their backs on the evil that is taking place.

Image 9-4: The Return of the Prodigal Son (1662)

Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son"


Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1662)

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia


Rembrandt, famous for his dark and beautiful paintings of biblical scenes, portrays so tenderly both the sorrowful shame and desperation of the son and the unconditional grace, receptivity and joy of the father. This work is widely celebrated and contemplated for what it communicates about the forgiving and accepting heart of God.

Image 9-5: The Return of the Prodigal Son (1667)

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, "The Return of the Prodigal Son"


Bartolome Estaban Murillo, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1667)

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Murillo was one of the important participants in the Spanish Baroque school. His The Return of the Prodigal Son, while less celebrated than Rembrandt’s, is every bit as moving and passionate. The father and son are central, face-to-face and looking deeply and gratefully into each other’s eyes. However, this painting has more surrounding activity than Rembrandt’s, with servants bringing the fatted calf and the new clothes of blessing, as well as the playful family dog who is equally excited to see the son’s return.

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