MURILLO, Bartolomé Esteban
(b. 1617, Sevilla, d. 1682, Sevilla)

Return of the Prodigal Son

Oil on canvas, 236 x 262 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

In the final years of the 1660s Murillo increased his already considerable productivity. In 1667 he began to work for the Brotherhood of Charity, one of Seville's major lay confraternities. The Caridad, as it is known, was founded in 1565 with the mission of providing a decent burial for paupers. From 1663 the charitable activities were expanded to provide care for the needy sick, and a hospital was built, simultaneously enlarging and renovating the already existing chapel.

The scheme for the decoration of the chapel is a tripartite exposition of Christian charity as the way of salvation. The first part comprises two memorable paintings by Valdés Leal, demonstrating the futility of earthly pursuits and honours. A life devoted to accumulating wealth, power, and even learning is shown to lead only to the grave. Charity, which constitutes the second part of the program, provides the way to salvation, as seen in the seven acts of mercy, six of which are depicted by Murillo; the seventh, burying the dead, the Caridad's foundation charity, is embodied in a sculptural group, the Entombment of Christ by Pedro Roldán, placed in the altarpiece. The third component consists of two paintings by Murillo for lateral altars, depicting St Elizabeth of Hungary and St John of God, both illustrating the efficacy of good works and the necessity of personal participation in charitable deeds.

Murillo's paintings of the acts of mercy, which were installed on the walls of the chapel, have long been recognized as among his greatest. In order to impart maximum authority to the message, each of the acts is performed by Christ or a biblical character. In the Return of the Prodigal Son, which represents clothing of the naked, Murillo emphasizes the protective embrace of the forgiving father and underscores the good deed by showing a pile of fresh clothes held by a servant. The vaporous clouds that invade the background unobtrusively reinforce the warm sentiments of the joyful reunion.