Murillo's great talent for dramatic painting is apparent in this monumental depiction of the familiar parable of the prodigal son, an allegory of repentance and divine forgiveness. With players and props effectively placed to underscore the drama, it is reminiscent of a well-staged theater piece.
The artist selected the essential elements of the story's climax: the penitent son welcomed home by his forgiving father; the rich garments and ring that signify the errant son's restoration to his former position in the family; and the fatted calf being led to the slaughter for the celebratory banquet. The larger-than-life, central, pyramidal grouping of father and son dominates the picture, while the richest color is reserved for the servant bearing the new garments. Murillo may have chosen to emphasize that aspect of the parable -- symbolic of charity -- because of the nature of the commission. The Return of the Prodigal Son was one of eight huge canvases painted for the Church of the Hospital of Saint George in Seville, a hospice for the homeless and hungry.
Murillo's model was the life around him; part of the appeal of this canvas lies in its human touches -- the realism of the prodigal's dirty feet, the puppy jumping up to greet his master, and perhaps most of all, the ingenuous smile of the little urchin leading the calf.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication _Spanish Paintings of the Fifteenth through Nineteenth Centuries_, which is available as a free PDF <u>https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/spanish-painting-15th-19th-centuries.pdf</u>