Headlines from First Thoughts

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Visit to the Hermitage

In front of Rembrandt's masterpiece

The Hermitage is known for housing Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. I had been preparing for this visit ever since Carson-Newman invited me to teach at the Academy in St. Petersburg. I was first introduced to the painting during a Ph.D. seminar on the parables at Baylor in 1998. My assignment was to research the history of interpretation of a parable unique to the Gospel of Luke through art. I chose the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). During the seminar, Mike Parsons pointed me to Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son about his encounter with Rembrandt’s work of the same name. Nouwen cited Barbara Haeger’s 1988 dissertation on the painting where she stated that Rembrandt combined two parables into one: the Prodigal Son and Elder Brother and the Publican and Pharisee. I was hooked. Nouwen’s book gave the painting even more spiritual depth than it already had, and I hoped one day to see the real thing.

When Carson-Newman called, I honestly could not believe that I would be teaching the “Parables” in St. Petersburg to Russian seminary students. I decided to build the class around an encounter with the painting. On Thursday, I lectured on both parables and then revealed to them Haeger’s interpretation. The looks on their faces were like mine when I learned the information. The elder brother dressed as a Pharisee and the seated man to his right with arm across his chest looking as if he could beat his breast—-both elements surprised them. They did not take my word for it; one student asked me to cite my source. I looked it up in the bibliography of Nouwen’s book just to prove my case.

The building of the Hermitage was worth the trip. As my interpreter told me, you should spend your first trip to the Hermitage looking at the floors, the second at the ceilings, and then the third at the walls. The students’ time was short, so we went straight to the Rembrandt. As we passed one corridor of paintings after another, I felt like I was running past the Jefferson Memorial to get the Capitol. (I later retraced my steps).

I arrived from behind the painting with a large group of tourists standing in front of the giant canvas. The 8 foot high portrait was astonishing to say the least. On this beautiful day, the light bursting through the window made the forehead of the father glow as if he had been holding his head in his hands for a long time. The real thing revealed that the seated man not only held his arms over his chest, but he crossed his right leg with his boot atop his left knee. I stood for a little while at eye level with the prodigal’s bare left foot. You could almost smell the pig slop still between his toes.

The painting was hard to take in with one visit. After the students left to go back to a late afternoon class, my interpreter and I returned to see the painting in the afternoon light. The colors were even better then. This time, I decided that the prodigal’s mother stands in the background barely visible at the top left corner. She lingers in the shadows always knowing he would return; she was ready to see her baby; but dad gets the first hug.

The art, like the parables themselves, evoke a response from the observer. But there really are not words to describe this meeting, reunion, and moment. Rembrandt saved his best work for last.

1 comment:

Ekklesia Cristiana Internacional said...

Now I know why you went to St. Petersburg! Loved the later posts about worship yesterday.

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