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The Cover
October 9, 2002

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Author Affiliations

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor.

JAMA. 2002;288(14):1691. doi:10.1001/jama.288.14.1691

Of all the parables in the New Testament, it is the story of the Prodigal Son that has most often captured the imagination of Western artists. A life-size version by Rembrandt (1606-1669), which Catherine the Great acquired in 1766 for the royal palace in St Petersburg (and which remains today at the Hermitage), is probably the most famous (JAMA cover, February 6, 2002). Rembrandt completed this monumental work only in the last year of his life, 1669, but it is evident that the subject had been on his mind for years, at least since 1636 when he published the etching The Return of the Prodigal Son (cover ). In sharp contrast to the large (eight feet by six feet) Hermitage canvas, the etching is measured in inches: six by five. It is smaller than half a sheet of business stationery; the image is scarcely larger than its reproduction on the JAMA cover. If the one is imposing, requiring a certain distance and proper lighting for viewing, the other has the intimacy of a personal prayerbook; it can be carried about in the hand and its story contemplated whenever and in whatever light the viewer chooses. The story is as eloquently told in the one as in the other, but because the smaller is less intimidating, it becomes the more lovable.

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