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Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The Prodigal Son
An engraving of the Prodigal Son, kneeling among swine.
The Prodigal Son, who humbly returned to his father, was a personification of the sinner returned to the community of the faithful. Dürer has chosen to portray the moment when the Prodigal Son, working as a swineherd, realises his sins and resolves to make amends:
'And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.' (Luke 15:17-19)
Although this is one of Dürer’s earliest engravings, it shows that the artist had already developed great skill in the technique. At the same time he is still clearly experimenting with the depiction of depth and space: the rather flat area behind the piglets at the bottom left of the print, for example, does not show the assurance seen in the farm buildings behind. These buildings were particularly praised by Vasari, who noted that they were ‘most beautiful huts in the manner of German cottages’. This impression is an early example, taken while the engraved lines were still fresh and clear. As engravings are taken from metal plates they slowly wear down, meaning the engraved lines are less deep and impressions become less sharp. The plate of the 'Prodigal Son' was used to make prints until around 1575, by which time much of the fine detail had worn away.