Ca. 1570. Oil on canvas, 147 x 200 cm.
This work portrays the well-known New Testament parable (Luke, 15: 11-32) illustrating the repentance of the sinner and the virtues of forgiveness. The pretext for the setting is the banquet given by the father to celebrate the return of the son, in which, according to the gospel, a fatted calf was served. The painter chose to recreate the festive nature of the event, ignoring the angry protests of the eldest son (often identified with the Jewish people) at the welcome with which the younger prodigal son (symbol of the Gentiles) was greeted. In his rendering, Jacopo followed the indoor/outdoor scheme and displayed his knowledge of Flemish art by including common motifs used in the outdoors, such as the flayed ox, the boy inflating the bladder, and the cat attacking the dog; these elements are found in the Flayed Ox painted by Marten van Cleve around 1566 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. 1970), an engraving by Philipp Galle precisely reproducing a Return of the Prodigal Son done by Marten van Heemskerck in 1562, and another engraving by Hieronymus Cock of Hans Bol's Autumn painted in 1570. It is more questionable whether Jacopo took into account the satirical dimension these motifs originally possessed when he incorporated them. Sullivan, for example, has recently linked the flayed ox that appears in Flemish painting to Erasmus's proverb to kill an ox, which contained a veiled criticism of those who lived beyond their means. This would be an inappropriate message for the work in question, as it would be tantamount to criticising as prodigal the father instead of the son.
Like the other kitchen scenes, this one enjoyed considerable success. In the 18th century, Monaco engraved a version belonging to the Savorgnan collection in Venice, and the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome houses the only signed version (JAC. S ET / FRANC.S / FILIUS.P), which is smaller than the Prado one (100 x 124 cm) and has been linked to the Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, inv. 79.13) owing to their similar size (98 x 126 cm). Ballarin attributed to Francesco a replica sold by Sotheby's New York on 10 October 1991. The notable quality of the Prado version and the visual evidence that at least two painters participated in its execution is in keeping with the way the Bassano bottega worked: Francesco would execute large areas (the figures in the foreground on the left) and Jacopo kept some motifs for himself (such as the reunion of father and son) and was responsible for corrections and the general finish. Jacopo's retouching would explain the abundant craquelure of the pictorial layer, which is particularly noticeable in the human faces, the most delicate part of the composition. According to Rearick, the Louvre houses a ricordo of this work (Text drawn from Falomir, M.: Los Bassano en la España del Siglo de Oro, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2001, p. 217).