Master of the Prodigal Son

(Antwerp active c. 1530s-1560s)

The Descent from the Cross

111.1 x 72.4 cm. (43 3/4 x 20 1/2 in.)
Oil on panel, shaped top


Possibly Lord Robert Dudley (1532–1588), 1st Earl of Leicester, England.
Possibly Cardinal Joseph Fesch (1763-1839).
Collection Wesendonck, Zurich; sale, Kunsthaus Lempertz, 12 May 2012, lot 01207, when acquired by the present owner.


Campbell, Lorne. The Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, with French Paintings before 1600. London: National Gallery Company, 2014.

Marlier, Georges. “L’Atelier du Maître du Fils Prodigue.” In Jaarboek Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Antwerpen, Anvers, 1961, 75-112.

Renaissance des Nordens: Meisterzeichnungen aus der École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Hamburg: Hamburger Kunsthalle, 1986.

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Catalogue Entry

The expression “Master of the Prodigal Son” was coined in 1909 by Belgian art historian Georges Hulin to name the author of a painting in the Wien Kunsthistorisches Museum depicting an episode from the Parable of the Prodigal Son.1 This unknown master is today believed to have been active in Antwerp between the 1530s and 1560s. Although about forty paintings are today attributed to this artist, stylistic and qualitative inconsistency among them suggests that they were probably executed by different hands. Conventionally considered at the head of a successful workshop, the Master of the Prodigal Son is known to have mostly painted biblical subjects from both the Old and the New Testament. His main iconographic and stylistic sources are to be found in the work of other Flemish painters, primarily Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502–50) and Frans Floris (1517–70).2

The present work depicts the Descent from the cross, a moment in Christ’s life, which follows the Crucifixion and precedes the Entombment. Christ’s half-naked dead body is at the centre of the panel, his loins covered by a white cloth. The crown of thorns has been removed from his head and his wounds are clearly visible. Joseph of Arimathea, wearing a red turban and a lavish outfit with fur, supports Christ’s lifeless body, and simultaneously, places it on a light-blue shroud. In accordance with the canonical Gospels, he is assisted by Nicodemus, the man behind him holding the nails that tied Jesus to the cross. To the left is the Virgin Mary, weeping, and wearing a veil and a dark brown mantle, which probably discoloured over time. The young man in red, also weeping with grief and comforting the Virgin with his right hand, is St John, the youngest of Christ’s Apostles. Behind the figures is Christ’s cross with the acronym I·N·R·I (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum) written on a scroll at its top. The group, which occupies the majority of the panel’s surface, is set before an airy landscape with distant mountains. On the left, a group of men with lances – possibly the soldiers who crucified Christ – makes his way back to the city.

Fig. 1. Master of the Prodigal Son, Pietà, oil on panel, 108.5 x 69 cm, National Gallery, London.

Fig. 2. Master of the Prodigal Son, Pietà, oil on oak, 109 x 69.5 cm, Suermondt-Ludwig Museum, Aachen.

In the flourishing workshop of the Master of the Prodigal Son, several versions of the same paintings were often produced.3 This is confirmed, for example, by the Master’s Pietà today at the London National Gallery (Fig. 1), of which numerous similar versions exist (Fig. 2, Suermondt-Ludwig Museum, Aachen). The likely hypothesis that this composition derived from a painting by Jan Sanders van Hemessen (or by his workshop)4 suggests that the Master’s oeuvre was indebted in external figurative visual sources. This is further confirmed by the present work, which visually looks identical to the central panel of The Deposition of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene (Fig. 3) executed by the studio of Flemish painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst. Indeed, the two pictures repeat the same composition; their figures share identical stances, gestures and attributes, the only substantial variation being the different colour of St John’s robe. The paintings’ landscapes also look very much alike, the major difference being the Master’s elimination of the tree’s foliage on the right. At the actual state of research, it is not known with certainty how the Master encountered van Aelst’s painting.


Fig. 3. Workshop of Pieter Coecke van Aelst the Elder, The Deposition of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene, oil on panel, 119 x 140 cm., Private collection.

However, considering that both painters were operating in Antwerp in the mid-sixteenth century, and that van Aelst run a thriving workshop in the city, the Master may have encountered a replica of The Deposition – if not the painting itself – and copied it. The Master’s iconographic debt towards van Aelst is also confirmed by an additional example. In another Descent from the Cross attributed to the Master of the Prodigal Son (Fig. 4), this seems to have adopted a compositional scheme popularised by van Aelst’s workshop (Fig. 5 and 6). Nevertheless, from a stylistic point of view, the present work retains some of the Master’s characteristics, such as the Virgin’s pointed chin and the figures’ defined finger nails.5


Fig. 4. Attributed to the Master of the Prodigal Son, The Descent from the Cross, paint on wood panel, 109 x 70 cm, Private collection.

Fig. 5. Workshop of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, The Deposition, oil on panel, 107 x 69 cm., Private collection.

The comparison with paintings by Pieter Coecke van Aelst helps to shed light on the original aspect and function of the present work. The format analogy with the central panel of The Deposition of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene suggests that also the Master’s Descent from the cross was originally the central panel of a triptych, whose lateral wings are now lost. The relatively small dimensions of the work suggest that it was meant for private devotion, possibly for a private chapel. As many religious paintings executed in the workshop of the Master of the Prodigal Son, the present panel was not commissioned by a specific patron and was probably produced for sale on the open market.6 This might also be suggested by the intimate tone of the work, which, in accordance with the principles of the Reformation, aimed at encouraging piety and devotion. In the present work, the emphasis on Christ’s humanity suggests a private fruition of the painting. The absence of a halo, along with Jesus’ deathly pallor and the blood still pouring from his wounds all underline his human nature. Christ’s lifeless body, located at the centre of the composition and close to the picture plane, invites the viewer to participate in his suffering. The sorrowful expressions and the tears pouring down Mary and St John’s faces encourage an emphatic participation to their grief, while the Virgin’s disposition of hands is an invite to prayer. The bare tree on the right possibly alludes to Christ’s death, reinforcing the meditative tone of the painting.


Fig. 6. Pieter Coecke van Aelst, The Deposition, oil on panel, 119 x 170 cm., Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, Amsterdam.

Renaissance des Nordens: Meisterzeichnungen aus der École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, (Hamburg: Hamburger Kunsthalle, 1986), 100.
2 For a detailed study on The Master of the Prodigal Son, see G. Marlier, “L’Atelier du Maître du Fils Prodigue,” in Jaarboek Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen, Anvers, 1961, 75-112.
3 Ibid., 81. 
4 L. Campbell, The Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, with French Paintings before 1600, (London: National Gallery Company, 2014), 547.
5 Ibid., 542
6 A vast number of paintings produced by Antwerp workshops during the sixteenth century were produced for sale on the open market. See, for example, Curatorial Conversations: Maryan Ainsworth on Coecke's Panel Painting. Last accessed on October 31, 2018:
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This panel consists of three pieces of wood that are cradled and stable. The joins of each board run vertically from top to bottom: one runs down through St John and the Virgin, while the other two run down through Christ’s shoulder. A very small, minor crack is on the lower centre of the panel. Inspection under UV light shows retouching all along the aforementioned joins. Scattered, small retouches are also visible throughout the background and the figures, with larger ones concentrated on the Virgin’s veil, and St John’s face and red drapery. The painting is offered in a shaped top ebonized and gilded moulded frame.

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