We have selected five famous paintings by Rembrandt. In order to understand and truly appreciate each of them, it is important to know who is in the painting and what is happening. In addition to learning about Rembrandt and art, you will find out what inspired Rembrandt to paint each masterpiece.
As you read and see each painting, think about what God is like, who Jesus is, the primary message from the painting and how God wants you to apply this message to your life.
The Return of the Prodigal Son
The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
252 x 205 cm Created: 1663-1669
There are many things to notice about this painting: the body language of each person, the lighting, the colors, the hands, the person in the upper left corner in the shadow, the facial expressions.
- From the Bible reading in Luke, who are the people in this painting? Three of them are named in the parable. Three of them are not.
- Use these words to describe the attitudes of each person: love, redemption, forgiveness, sorrow, repentance, judgment, compassion, understanding, blessing, self-righteousness, brokenness, pride, humility, trust, contempt, grace, mercy.
- What is Jesus teaching from this parable?
- How can you apply this truth to your life?
The Return of the Prodigal Son is one of Rembrandt final paintings. It is thought that this painting reflects his own life of wild living as a young man followed by reflection and repentance. A Rembrandt scholar Rosenberg (et al.) writes that:
[Rembrandt] interprets the Christian idea of mercy with extraordinary solemnity, as if this were his spiritual testament to the world… The observer is roused by the feeling that this is an extraordinary event… The whole represents a symbol of homecoming, of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God’s mercy.
Dutch priest Henri Nouwen (1932–1996) was so taken by the painting that he eventually wrote a short book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (1992), using the parable and Rembrandt’s painting as frameworks. Considering the role of the father and sons in the parable in relation to Rembrandt’s biography, he wrote:
Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.
 Rosenberg, J., Slive, S., & Ter, K. E. H. (1997 ). Dutch art and architecture 1600–1800. Yale University Press. Pp. 66, 80–81. Quoted in Janson, 598
 Nouwen 65–66
Christ in the Storm
Stolen in 1990 and never recovered
160 cm x 128 cm Created: 1633
Everyone in the boat is in the same situation.
- From the Bible reading, describe what is happening.
- What features in the picture stand out the most to you personally?
- What words would you use to describe the disciples? Have you ever felt that way?
- What was Jesus’ response?
- How can you apply this truth to your life?
- This painting was stolen in 1990 from a museum in Boston. It has never been found. How ironic is it that the thieves would steal a painting about Jesus and his disciples? How did they see the value of the painting itself, but completely missed the true meaning and its significance to their lives?
The Raising of the Cross
Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
95.7 x 72.2 cm Created: c 1633
Jesus told his disciples many times that He would die. His life was not taken from him by surprise. He gave his life to save us.
- What is happening in this painting?
- Rembrandt portrays himself in blue participating in the death of Jesus. Why would Rembrandt place himself in the painting?
- Why would Jesus die on the cross?
- How does God want you to apply this truth to your life?
The Descent from the Cross
Bavarian State Painting Collection, Munich
90 x 65 cm Created: c 1633
The soldiers are gone. The mocking crowd is gone. Jesus said, “It is finished” and breathed his last.
- From looking at the painting, how would you describe this scene?
- From reading the Bible, who are the people?
- Rembrandt portrays himself as the one in blue on the ladder. Why do you think Rembrandt did this?
- Nicodemus is described as “the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night.” Read about this visit in John chapter 3. The key verse is John 3:16. Replace the words “the world” with your name.
- Why is this day ~ the day Jesus died on the cross ~ now called Good Friday?
To understand this painting, we must know the story of the two men at the table with Jesus. Luke 24:13-35 gives us many details about them and their seven-mile (11.25 km) journey from Jerusalem to a city called Emmaus. As you read these details, put yourself in their shoes as they are walking on a dusty road.
Supper at Emmaus
The Louvre, Paris
68 x 65 cm Created: 1648
- In this painting Rembrandt uses natural and divine light. Who is at the table in divine light? Who are the other two men at the table?
- From the Bible reading, what do the men say about Jesus of Nazareth?
- What did they say had been their hope about Jesus of Nazareth?
- From Luke 24:27, how did Jesus give them complete understanding concerning Himself?
- As they sat at the table with Jesus, how were their eyes opened that they recognized him?
- Why did Jesus not reveal Himself at the beginning, but at the table when they invited him?