My favorite portrait came from a city founded on this day more than three centuries ago.
On May 27, 1703, Tsar Peter I (the Great) founded the city of St. Petersburg. The city became Russia’s cultural capital and most European city.
I have been privileged to visit the city twice. Each time, I was amazed by its many waterways, which reminded me of Venice, and its astounding architectural sites. St. Isaac’s Cathedral is one of the largest domed buildings in the world; the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ is one of the most stunning buildings I’ve ever seen; St. Catherine’s Palace would take a week to tour.
But the site that most enthralled me was the Hermitage. The second-largest museum in the world (after the Louvre), it was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 and has been open to the public since 1852. The museum houses more than three million items in six historic buildings.
It has a section devoted to the paintings of Rembrandt. And it is here that I encountered his masterpiece, Return of the Prodigal Son.
The painting was completed in 1669 and is massive, standing 8.5 feet tall by 6.7 feet wide. Rembrandt depicts the prodigal on his knees in rags. His father, dressed in rich garments, bends over to embrace him. Standing at the right is the older brother, his hands crossed impassively in judgment.
Henri Nouwen’s classic, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, was written after the author spent several hours in front of the painting. I had read the book and been deeply moved by its call to forgive and be forgiven. Then I saw the painting and was captured by its invitation to grace.
I purchased a print of the painting in the Hermitage gift shop which Janet framed for me. It has been displayed on the wall of my study ever since.
As Nouwen notes, both brothers needed their father’s love, but only one was willing to receive it. Since each of us has sinned against our perfect God (Romans 3:23), each of us needs his perfect forgiveness. But forgiveness must be received to be experienced. Even God cannot give us what we refuse to admit we need.
Jesus’ famous parable and Rembrandt’s masterpiece both depict the older brother standing outside his father’s grace. But unlike the parable and the painting, our story has not yet ended.
You may be the younger brother in the story, a person in great need of great grace. You have only to turn to your Father to experience his forgiveness and transforming love (1 John 1:9).
You may be the older brother in the story, a person of disciplined obedience and consistent morality. But you are no less a sinner than your brother. If you are unwilling to seek your Father’s mercy, you cannot experience his grace. And if you are unwilling to forgive your brother’s sins, you cannot experience the fullness of your father’s forgiveness for your sins (Matthew 6:14–15).
Finally, you may be the father in the story, someone against whom others have sinned. Biblical forgiveness is not excusing sinful behavior or pretending it did not happen. It is pardoning, choosing not to punish. It is giving others the grace and mercy we have received from our Father.
Which figure in the painting is yours today?