Where is the Older Brother?

In searching for Christian art on the parable of the prodigal son, or as I prefer to call it, the parable of the lost brothers, I became increasingly curious about the way the older brother is (or, as is more often the case, is not) portrayed. Has he been lost in visual translation?

In some paintings the older brother is absent entirely, with only the younger son and the father in view.

Prodigalson

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other paintings the older brother is present, but joins the father in celebrating the younger brother’s return.

Prodigal-son-africa

 

 

 

 

 

Few, however, capture the climax of the story, which reveals that the older brother was just as lost to the father as the younger brother, only he hadn’t recognized it yet:

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutescomes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

Curiously, one of the most faithful depictions I’ve found was actually a cartoon!

Prodigal son

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, why do you think he often goes missing? I have my suspicions but I’d like to hear yours.

3 Comments

  1. I think he’s missing because we don’t like to face how much he may be like us, like how we would respond and do respond in the same situations… just a thought.

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  2. Matt, I was struck by this same realization last year when I was searching for images of this parable. I think that Vanessa is right–the typical image of the father embracing the younger son is one that more people are willing to identify with, because they see their own stories in his; his waywardness was of an obvious kind, not the more subtle kind of waywardness of the older brother, and thus younger-brother types are much more able to see their need for forgiveness and reconciliation and to appreciate God’s grace.
    Also, we are not told how the older brother ultimately responds to the father’s invitation. In most artworks I’ve come across in which the older brother is present, he is standing off to the side with either a scowl or a hesitance; he is still “lost” at the story’s conclusion. But there is one great exception, which suggests a more hopeful ending to the parable: Elmer Yazzie’s painting The Prodigal Sons and the Father (http://blogs.echurchnetwork.net/beechwood/archive/2-2010.aspx), which shows both brothers in the father’s embrace, the three together forming one big circle of reconciliation (kind of like in the painting you posted above). I also like Margaret Adams Parker’s sculptural interpretation of the parable (http://www.artway.eu/content.asp?id=1103&lang=en&action=show ), which shows the father giving equal attention to the older brother, seeking reunion with him too.

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