I came to see it as, somehow, my personal painting, the painting that contained not only the heart of the story that God wants to tell me, but also the heart of the story that I want to tell to God and God’s people. All of the Gospel is there. All of my life is there. All of the lives of my friends is there. The painting has become a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God
~Henri Nouwen, from The Return of the Prodigal Son
It’s not for sale, but Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son is valued at over $300 million. There are about 350 certified paintings of his in existence and only about 14 are in private hands. If one comes on the market you can expect to pay around $50 million for it. All of that would be staggering to the painter who spend much of his life in financial hardship. He was also a man deeply appreciative of the true treasure of God’s grace.
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:
Created near the end of his life, during a time of mourning, personal and artistic disappointment, and ongoing financial struggles, Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son is a testament to his security in the love and mercy of God in the face of all these trials. Throughout his artistic career, Rembrandt had revisited scenes from this story several times in drawings, etchings, and paintings. He was clearly moved by Jesus’s parable of God’s unconditional love, and in this late canvas he made his culminating statement. It is a painting of great tenderness, capturing the moment when the wayward son returns to his father to beg for forgiveness. The hands of the father rest gently on his kneeling son’s shoulders as he leans forward with an expression of absolute acceptance and love. No matter what paths the son has trod, no matter what mistakes and betrayals he has committed, no matter how much he has hurt and disgraced his family, his father has been awaiting his return and welcomes him home.
The emotion in Rembrandt’s famous painting is palpable, and made even more emotionally resonant by its quiet dignity. It is obvious to the viewer that something important and life changing is taking place among this cluster of family members. But there is clearly more going on here than a simple family reunion. In the face of this loving and merciful father, we glimpse the very face of God.
What’s the difference between worth and value?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt (1606–69) (Rembrandt Harmensz or Harmenszoon van Rijn), Dutch painter. The son of a wealthy miller of *Leiden, he showed an early inclination for his art and, at the age of 25, was one of the most famous portrait painters of his country. In 1631 he moved to Amsterdam, where he lived till his death. In 1634 he married the beautiful Saskia, who during the rest of her life was the inspiration of his art. His pictures on scriptural subjects in these years, which treat mostly of vivid scenes such as the story of *Samson, are full of vigour and imagination though they have not reached the spirituality of his later period. With the death of Saskia, in 1642, sorrow entered his life, and his troubles were increased by financial difficulties ending in bankruptcy and, in 1654, the scandal of having a child by his servant, Hendrickje, which brought him into conflict with the Reformed Church at Amsterdam. These sufferings, which threw him more and more into solitude, helped further to deepen and spiritualize his art and to give him an understanding of the Passion—a theme treated in about 90 paintings and etchings—such as few artists have possessed. Characteristic was his treatment of light and shade out of which his human figures appear to grow, thereby producing the impression of a happening beyond space and time. The supernatural atmosphere of the Last Supper and the Disciples at Emmaus, and the union of Divine majesty and redeeming love in the face of his Christ blessing the children or healing the sick, are unsurpassed in Christian art. Among his last great works is his famous Return of the Prodigal Son (Leningrad, c. 1668), a painted confession of faith in the goodness of God expressed in the face and hands of the father, who receives the kneeling beggar with infinite love. Rembrandt has rightly been termed the painter of the soul.
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1390–1391.
Sorrows of an Artist
At age 14, Rembrandt, the son of a wealthy miller, left the University of Leyden to study painting under an inconsequential painter of hell scenes. Three years later, however, he left the town he had lived in since birth to study art in Amsterdam, where he would live for the rest of his life.
In Amsterdam he developed both his affinity for depicting dramatic personal reactions and for chiaroscuro (painting in light and dark). In most of his paintings, light emerges from darkness, creating a timeless, emotional movement that draws the viewer into the scene.
By the late 1620s, he was already a renowned artist. “The Leyden miller’s son is much praised, but before his time,” wrote one critic, and a year later, the secretary of the Prince of Orange wrote an enthusiastic report commending Rembrandt’s “penetration” into the essence of his subjects.
In 1634 Rembrandt married the wealthy and beautiful Saskia van Uylenburgh, who during the rest of her life was his inspiration. It was a time of professional triumph, as portrait commissions poured in and his paintings were highly praised. But though Rembrandt and Saskia’s marriage was a happy one, it was also full of sorrow. Three children were born and died before a son, Titus, survived infancy. But the pregnancy was too difficult for Saskia, and she died the following year.
Rembrandt was also plagued by financial difficulties. He had a penchant for extravagant living, and when he purchased an expensive house in 1639, it placed him deep in debt.
Rembrandt acknowledged this extravagance by painting himself as the Prodigal Son, squandering money in the taverns with his wife, whom he depicted as a prostitute. In fact, Rembrandt often featured himself in his Bible paintings. In The Raising of the Cross, he even kept himself in his modern clothes to emphasize his personal involvement in the crucifixion. He believed the personalities in the Bible were like those of his Amsterdam acquaintances, so he painted these characters as he would his friends, with “the greatest and most natural emotion.”
Then, on top of sorrow and a growing debt, came scandal. Rembrandt’s servant, Hendrickje Stoffels, was summoned to appear before the Reformed church council. The official transcripts record that there, visibly pregnant, she “confesses to fornication with Rembrandt the painter, is gravely punished for it, admonished to penitence, and excluded from the Lord’s Supper.” Rembrandt himself was not censured, but his commissions, for which he could still command a good price, had dwindled in number.
In 1656 Rembrandt was forced to file for bankruptcy. He lost his house, his art collection, and soon after, his pride. He was forbidden from selling his own works and had to work for a firm set up by his servant Hendrickje and his son Titus. In 1663 Hendrickje died, and in 1668 Rembrandt’s son Titus died.
The following year, Rembrandt died, leaving behind only one daughter, 650 paintings, 280 etchings, and 1,400 drawings. Among his last works is his one of his most famous, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which depicts the opulent and sinful sinner returning home to the presence of his father.
Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, “Introduction,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 107–108.
Reproductions of his Paintings incl. edn. by A. Bredius (Utrecht, 1935; Eng. edn., 1937, rev. by H. Gerson, 1969); of his Drawings, ed. O. Benesch (6 vols., London, 1954–7; rev. by E. Benesch, 1973); of his Etchings, ed. L. Münz (2 vols., London, 1952), and K. G. Boon (ibid., 1963). The very extensive lit. incl. general studies by A. M. Hind (Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1930–1; London, 1932), J. Rosenberg (2 vols., Cambridge, Mass., 1948; rev. edn., London, 1964), B. Haak (Amsterdam, 1968; Eng. tr., 1969), C. [J.] White (London, 1984), S. Partsch (ibid., 1991), and E. van Wetering (Amsterdam, 1997). K. Clark, Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance (1966), and other works by this author. C. [J.] White, Rembrandt as Etcher (2 vols., 1969). Id. and K. G. Boon, Rembrandt’s Etchings: An Illustrated Critical Catalogue (2 vols., Amsterdam and New York ). A. Bruyn and others, A Corpus of Rembrandt’s Paintings (The Hague, Boston, and London, 1982 ff. [challenging the attribution of many paintings traditionally ascribed to Rembrandt]); cf. S. Alpers, Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market (1988).
Depaulis, Julien, ed. Rembrandt (Sirrocco/Confidential Concepts, 2003).
Muhlberger, Richard. What Makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt? (Viking Juvenile, 2002).
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits (The University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Joe Garland, Cindy Garland, and Jim Eichenberger, God’s Word on Canvas, Through Artists’ Eyes: An Exploration of Bible-Inspired Art, 6 Studies (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 2010), 35–40.
Bockemühl, Michael. Rembrandt. Köln: Taschen, 2000.
Bonafoux, Pascal. Rembrandt: Master of the Portrait. New York: Abrams, 1992.
Dewitt, Lloyd, ed. Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2011.
Durham, John I. The Biblical Rembrandt. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004.
Housden, Roger. How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self. New York: Harmony Books, 2005.
Rosenberg, Jakob. Rembrandt: Life and Work. New York: Phaidon, 1964.
I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.
Let’s explore together!
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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com
Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
Order it HERE today.