Around 1764, Catherine the Great acquired a collection of paintings – including several Rembrandt’s – that would subsequently hang in galleries connecting various pavilions of the Winter Palace and Imperial Hermitage. I don’t believe The Return of the Prodigal Son was one of these initial acquisitions, but it makes sense that it eventually featured in the Hermitage collection.
Rembrandt painted The Return around 1669, near the time of his death standing, as it were, on the precipice of this life and the next. Almost 350 years later, our “shore excursion” brought us to the steps of the Hermitage Museum. It was rainy and overcast (welcome to St. Petersburg – with an average 65 days of sunshine a year), and the Neva river looked metallic. I couldn’t quite believe we were here.
Our tour guide was a bubbly Russian woman who assured us that she would show us “everything.” Considering that the Hermitage is the largest collection of paintings in the world (three million items in six massive buildings, literally) and that we only had a few hours, I wondered what sort of magician she was. Even more, I worried that she’d gloss over The Return or, worse, avoid it. I didn’t have the courage to ask her about it for fear of disappointment, so I was thankful when an elderly American man from the south (Texas?) asked. “Of course,” she said, “we will see this painting. And everything else.”
Nothing prepares you for the magnitude and scope of the Winter Palace. The buildings are enormous, with extraordinarily high ceilings, endless floor space, and decadent furnishings. Not even Russian Ark – Alexander Sokurov’s breathless, one-take cinematic wonder – approximates the experience. I have never seen anything, let alone a museum, like the Hermitage.
Our optimistic tour guide wound us through crowds and rooms. We ascended a flight of stairs, turned a corner, and there it was.
The Return of the Prodigal Son hangs solitary on a wall illuminated by natural light from a nearby window. I didn’t anticipate the painting’s size – almost 8.5 feet by 6.7 feet. More than viewing a piece of art, it was as if I was gaping into some kind of portal. All those years of longing, our journey to St. Petersburg, and the painting’s sudden appearance – things aligned in that moment. And without effort or solicitation, I began to cry. I could’ve stayed for hours (which, thanks to Miss “Everything,” we did not have).
The details of spiritual experience are best unarticulated, and I fear more words will whip things into froth. What I will say, however, is that spiritual experience feels as if you’re at last present, with God, which is perhaps the purest joy of all. It haunts you long afterwards.
In the painting, Rembrandt portrays the father as old, weakened, half-blind. He is hunched with age and looks diminutive, particularly in relation to the elder son who’s immovably upright. It seems as if a puff of wind could blow the father over. He is altogether unassuming, without a whiff of power or self-importance. Rather, his hands and cloak appear receptive, taking in the younger son who is kneeling into his body.
Every detail which Rembrandt uses to portray the father evokes humility, and humility undoes our usual conceptions of God and what he’s like. This is precisely the genius of The Return. You would never guess that this is God. And that it is, that God is actually humble, enough so to become a baby and die on a cross to retrieve us, is a gospel one could happily gaze into forever. As he approached death, I imagine Rembrandt couldn’t wait to see this God whom he painted so clearly.
After our tour of The Hermitage, we ended up in the gift shop. I bought a small version of The Return and Jennifer and I carried it (in our carry-on) all the way back home. It now hangs on one exposed brick wall of our living room, next to a window.