Scratch-and-Sniff Evangelism
“The Art of Forgiveness: Images of the Prodigal Son” at the Museum of Biblical Art

SIN IS A “MILDLY FACETIOUS WORD,” WROTE THOMAS MANN, unsuited to everyday conversation. When even the Museum of Biblical Art (MoBIA), stepchild of the American Bible Society, tiptoes around the word, the triumph of nonjudgmentalism is irreversible.

Thomas Hart Benton, Return of the Prodigal Son (1939)

MoBIA’s “The Art of Forgiveness: Images of the Prodigal Son” combines distinguished art with didactic commentary caught between two antagonistic goals: populist outreach to ordinary people and an aesthetic appeal to secular cognoscenti. The result is a scratch-and-sniff evangelism adjusted to the vaporous religiosity of popular culture.

Most of the 56 works here are on loan from the Jerry Evenrud Collection of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minneapolis. A formidable collection, it could be the envy of the Metropolitan’s print department. The exhibition offers a splendid selection of mainly paintings and prints that range from the 15th century to the present by artists as varied as Rembrandt, Pietro Testa, caricaturists James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, Jean-Louis Forain, Jacques Lipchitz, Jules Pascin, Christian Rholfs, Thomas Hart Benton, Leon Golub and more.

A monumental late 15th century Belgian tapestry illustrates the first half of the Prodigal story in a magnificent series of vignettes. Personification, a medieval device for putting flesh on abstract concepts, advances the theme in the manner of allegory. Each abstraction becomes a figure whose name is woven into the fabric: Worldliness, Obedience, Blindness of Mind, a pageant of Vices and Virtues,

Action ends in a brothel with Self-Love guiding the Prodigal to bed with Lust. The visualization of Self-Love anticipates by centuries Lutheran scholar Mark Noll’s deft description of sinfulness as “the ineluctable curvature of the self in upon itself.”

All works revolve around standard motifs: the son’s rebellious departure from home, his riotous living, his skid into dissolution and humble return to his father. Francesco Bassano (1544-92) places his Prodigal in the Venice of his own day: A doge leans in benediction over his wayward son. Rembrandt’s pupil Govaert Flinck modeled his painting on his master’s etching of a Dutch patrician running to embrace a kneeling penitent. Diverse imaginings of the kiss of reconciliation are all marked with expressive intensity.

Duane Michals’s gelatin silver print series (1982) of a youth, naked and bent with shame like Masaccio’s Adam, is poignant and convincing. James Tissot’s 1881 series of etchings emphasizes the Prodigal’s wanderlust. The sails of a ship appear through the window of a Victorian parlor where he takes leave of his father. We see him next in a geisha house. Fritz Eichenberg, whose celebrated wood engravings enlivened Dorothy Day’s “The Catholic Worker,” sets his tattooed Prodigal asleep on a pig’s rump.

The symbolic import of the son scavenging for swill among swine is powerful. Every variation on the theme exhibited here carries weight. Yet the most haunting work on view is Thomas Hart Benton’s unbiblical treatment. Stark and sinuous, his lithograph depicts the Prodigal returning to a Depression-era setting. The father’s house is deserted and ruined; the once-fatted calf is a bleached skeleton by the road. An image of despair, it mocks the dynamics of the Gospel story. It negates the father and, with him, all hope.

Anecdote is more readily illustrated than theological reflection. So narrative elements necessarily take precedence over the existential tremor at the parable’s center. MoBIA’s task, then, is to offer accessible commentary that does not shirk subtlety or rigor. Unhappily, the accompanying tutorial drifts into an amiable moralism that applauds the general niceness of pardon.

The parable holds to an insight of the Berachot, one familiar to hearers in Second Temple Palestine: “Everything is within the power of heaven except the awe and fear of heaven.” Moral awakening is the pivot on which the story turns. Without a change of heart — metanoia the Greeks called it — there would be no expiatory homecoming, no occasion for absolution.

Emphasis on that radical contrition is vividly embodied in the works on view but absent from curatorial discussion. The sermonette reduces to easy verities a Judeo-Christian reflection on the terrible beauty of the bond of an ineffable God to a willful creation. In MoBIA’s sentimental gloss the story merely “highlights the universality of love between parent and child, the consequences of misbehavior and the miracle of forgiveness.” It accomplishes this for us all, “regardless of one’s faith tradition or lack thereof.”

Oprah does as much. And the word misbehavior abandons the gravity of sin. Or to quote Michael Vick in advance of a plea deal: “We all make mistakes.” Cheap grace is the holy grail of popular culture.

More dampening is the leveling of the parable to the wooly pieties of a workshop in conflict resolution: “This art of forgiveness speaks about the timeless power of understanding, tolerance and mercy in today’s conflict-ridden world.” (Meanwhile, the commentary shakes a finger at the Prodigal’s understandably bewildered brother who appears “judgmental.”)

A separate exhibition in an adjacent gallery features delicate illuminations by New York artist Barbara Wolff. These are tenuously tied to the prodigal theme with a cautionary tag about “the wages of profligate use of natural resources.” The rhetorical posture is an accommodation to mainstream ideological fashion that steamrolls over the lyricism of the work.

Ms. Wolff is a luminous painter who takes her imagery — a cluster of grapes, a sheaf of barley, a date palm — from the flora and landscape of the Book of Psalms. The refinement of these small hymns of thanksgiving for the natural world is all too rare. Like medieval miniaturists, she grinds her own pigments and works on calf or goatskin parchment. Her gilded Hebrew calligraphy is exquisite and ranks among the finest examples of contemporary illumination.


“Images of the Prodigal Son: The Art of Forgiveness” at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway, 212-408-1500).

This review appeared first in The New York Sun October 11, 2007.

Copyright 2007, Maureen Mullarkey

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