Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son hangs in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. I came to know it through Henri Nouwen’s book, and had much appreciated his identification with the different characters in Jesus’s story: the Father, the younger son and the older brother. There is something of each of them in our own makeup. I have a large poster of the image to use with religious groups – it is a great resource for reflection.
Seeing it for real was very moving. There is a whole room of Rembrandt paintings in the Hermitage museum. The Prodigal Son is at the end of the room in a bay of its own. The Hermitage receives thousands of visitors every day, many of them from the cruise ships that stop at St Petersburg. Their guides rush them through the highlights of the museum, as ours did – a good-enough introduction that doesn’t give you any time to linger over anything. And the museum is full of treasures.
As soon as we came into the Rembrandt room, I skipped the guide’s introduction to the earlier works and rushed ahead till I found the Prodigal Son, and spent as much time with it as I could. It is a huge painting. I was struck first by the father’s tenderness. I knew it was there, of course, but seeing the painting face to face, it struck me with new force. There is a strong sense in the picture of Rembrandt’s sense of loss for his own son. I felt also the son’s shame and deep unhappiness as he kneels before his father, his sandal lost in his haste. And in the shadows, the elder son who did things right but is full of resentment.
There is nothing I can tell you about the picture that Nouwen and a hundred others haven’t elucidated. All I can tell you is the impact on me of seeing it for myself. I was moved to tears by the scale of it, by the raw emotion of it, and because it brought me for a moment close to God the Father.
Just over a week later, we were in Moscow and I went to the Tretyakov Gallery. This is a bit of a rabbit warren, and the image I wanted to see was in the last room, which meant going upstairs, rushing through many rooms, down another set of stairs until I reached Room 60. It is the last of half a dozen rooms of Russian icons. Room 60 has the earliest ones, several by Andrei Rublev, including the Trinity, which is perhaps the best known Russian icon in the west. I saw a Trinity by Rublev in 2010 in the Sergei-Posad monastery outside Moscow, but the one at the Tretyakov is the original, dating from 1420.
The icon should be in a church, not a museum. We noted a tension between churches and religious art that were or were kept in museums, and their use for worship and devotion. In Uglich, the guide was upset that the church-museum was going to be returned to the Diocese – she felt that the frescoes would be better preserved if the church remained a museum, and would be at risk of damage from all the candles. In the Tretyakov, some women visitors wore headscarfs because they were in the presence of the holy, and were using the icons for devotion.
The Trinity has a double meaning. The Orthodox interpret Old Testament stories in the light of the New Testament, and see in the older stories hints and types of what is to come. At one level, the icon shows the visitors to Abraham, the angels whom he welcomed and who promised him a son. But it is also an image representing Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Again, I had the sense of being in the presence of something truly great. The icon is full of light. It was lighter than I had expected from all the images of it I have seen, quite pale in some ways. Even the postcards I bought in the Tretyakov shop show it more golden. It wasn’t faded in any way – remarkable, given that it is pretty well 600 years old. For me, it glowed with light. I stood with my chotki and prayed the Jesus Prayer, over and over. My heart was touched, almost physically.
I am not an artist nor an art historian, but I love images, especially images that help me see something of God, that open me up to God’s presence. It was a privilege to see these two images. They gave me a sense of my own smallness before God’s love and light.