Meandering With an Art Major: “Picturing the Prodigal Son”

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One of the paintings in the exhibit “Picturing the Prodigal Son” by Bartolome Esteban Murillo. Photo by Maria Camila Rodriguez.

As residents in the DFW metroplex, the students at the University of Dallas are exposed to multitudes of different periods and perspectives of visual artistry. This form of beauty both enriches the scholarly mind and soothes the tired soul. 

However, it may be slightly intimidating to find genuinely wholesome exhibits to see that do not use the interpretational “modern art” tag as a crutch–there is no joy in finding a banana duct-taped to a wall. “Meandering with an Art Major”  will attempt to guide readers through the heights of the artists, both ancient and contemporary, displayed across Dallas. 

The first exhibit to be explored is approximately an hour away, by metro, from UD, at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Museum. The museum boasts an impressive collection of Spanish royal and religious baroque art – though one particular exhibit, on loan from the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, the National Gallery of Art, Washington and the Hispanic Society of America, New York, is currently the star of the show.

“Picturing the Prodigal Son” is one of the most noteworthy Baroque series known to the Catholic Church, as it captures the theological complexities of Jesus’ parable in a relatable, emotive and iconic way. Painted by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, the most sought-after Spanish painter in the 17th century, he adapted the high ecclesiastical concepts of sinners and saints into the streets of then-present-day Seville to encourage private devotion. 

Because parables were rarely displayed in any artistic works during that time, especially in such a strict, stylistic narrative cycle, Murillo would have had little iconographic inspiration to rely on. Historians speculate that he relied on European prints that displayed the story and the then-popular moralistic religious drama “El Hijo Prodigo” as inspiration. 

The series is divided into six canvases, each displaying the vibrant baroque fashion, the dynamic use of chiaroscuro to influence mood, the rich Sevillan architecture, and unique storytelling techniques and iconography that eloquently expounds each key point in the story. “The Prodigal Son Receiving His Portion” depicts fraternal tension, “The Prodigal son Feasting” displayed subtle depictions of material vices, “The Prodigal Son Driven Out” illustrates the warning against temptation, “The Prodigal Son Feeding Swine” demonstrates conversion and penitent resolve and “The Return Of The Prodigal Son” depicts the intimate reunion and forgiveness between father and son. 

The clear headliner for the series, however, is the second version of “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” as it allows the viewer a different, explorative interpretation of the previous scene. The vibrant colors envelop a scene of familiar, joyous forgiveness amongst father and son, with servants already preparing for the festivities celebrating the son’s return. Beyond the expected repentance represented, Murillo subtly highlighted one of the beatitudes as a servant carrying the young man’s new garb — in other words, “clothing the naked.”

The “Picturing the Prodigal Son” exhibition will remain on loan to the Meadows Museum until June 12, 2022. Tickets for students and adults are four and twelve dollars respectively during regular scheduling; Thursday evenings from 5:00-9:00 p.m. provide free entries for all audiences.

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