HEMESSEN, Jan Sanders van
(b. ca. 1500, Hemishem, d. 1556, Haarlem)

The Prodigal Son

Oil on oak, 140 x 198 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15, 1 1-22) illustrates above all the theme of repentance and the infinite nature of divine mercy. By choosing to show the episode, mentioned only in passing in the Bible, of the young man wasting away his inheritance in debauchery, Hemessen underlines, on the contrary, the hard lot of mankind constantly harassed by its faults. This novel interpretation originates in the developments that the literature of the period brings to the theme. The iconography created in this way was to be immensely successful and would underlie the Brothel Scenes and Joyous Companies that flourish in later Flemish painting.

In an astonishingly novel setting, the artist places in the foreground the prodigal son, surrounded by women of easy morals and abandoning himself to the sins of the senses: lechery, gluttony, laziness. The artist peoples the scene with strongly characterised, almost caricatural figures, that we find again in several of his paintings: the aging pimp with a cupidinous and revolting grin, the red-faced, jeering drunk, the avid gambler, the prostitute. These large figures strike the viewer with their bold foreshortening and their brusque gestures.

Concerned to express the third dimension, the artist explores, not without difficulty, the plastic possibilities offered by the monumental forms of Italian art, onto which he grafts the at times cruel realism and vision of detail that are specific to the Flemish tradition. All this strengthens the ambiguity of the picture, which takes pleasure in displaying vices under the pretext of condemning them. The story continues at the back of the picture: the prodigal son, having lost all his money and his pourpoint, is chased out of town; relegated to tending the pigs he expresses a sincere repentance. Finally, he returns to the house of his father, who pardons him.

The shift from the large figures in the foreground to the miniaturised episodes in the background is somewhat abrupt. Only the colonnaded portico, decorated with grotesques and foliated scrolls, provides a relative transition. The elegant, rapidly drawn figures in the background are the work of an anonymous fellow artist, known as the Master of Paul and Barnabas, who was deeply influenced by the famous tapestry patterns done in Rome by Raphael and sent to Brussels in 1517 for weaving.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.