Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Prodigal Son at the Brothel
  • Creator: Follower of Hans Schilling (German, active 1459 - 1467), painter, from the workshop of Diebold Lauber (German, active 1427 - 1467)
  • Description:

    This image of the prodigal son comes from a manuscript of Barlaam und Josaphat. On the viewer's left, the young man enters a brothel wearing rich clothing and a feather circlet only later to be forced out looking unkempt and dirty. The story of the prodigal son is often depicted in works of art due to its themes of human frailty and redemption. The prodigal son walking into the brothel wears fashionable particolored hose and a very short belted gown. The length and beauty of men's hair was highly prized in Germany according to foreign travelers and here serves to emphasize how low the prodigal son has fallen when he has spent his money. At the entrance to the brothel, the sex workers are welcoming and wear beautiful clothing and flowers in their flowing hair. On the viewer's right side, women are forcing him out with a distaff and other implements. One woman has her dress tucked up as if she were cleaning house. The manuscript features 138 illustrations in ink and colored washes on paper. It was produced in the workshop of Diebold Lauber, a manuscript illuminator who specialized in illustrated books on paper using a serial method of production that streamlined the copying and artwork.

    This image refers to the biblical parable of the prodigal son that comes from Luke 15:11-32. It concerns a second son who requests that his father give him his inheritance. The father complies and the son goes out and squanders his wealth with sex workers until he has no money. Unfortunately, a famine affects the country, and he is forced to take a job feeding pigs, unclean animals in Jewish law. Realizing that instead of living with pigs he could be living with his father, he decides to return home, apologize and beg to be treated as a servant. When he returns, he finds that his father welcomes him with open arms and provides all that he needs. The older brother is upset and the father reassures him of his love while explaining why they are celebrating the return of their lost family member.

    This parable is one of the moral tales in Barlaam und Josaphat which is a retelling of the story of the Buddha that first appeared in Europe around the eleventh century. Rudolf von Em wrote this account in the 1220s in Middle High German. The titular character's name, Josaphat, derives from the Sanskrit Budhasaf or Bodhisattva. Josaphat meets a hermit named Barlaam who converts him to Christianity through telling parables. One of them is the parable of the prodigal son. In the illustrations the prodigal son entering the brothel closely resembles Josaphat both in physical features and clothing, emphasizing the parallels between the two lives. Both Barlaam and Josaphat were recognized as saints in western Europe as early as the thirteenth century and Jacobus de Voragine included their story in The Golden Legend. This collection of saints' lives, written around 1260, is viewed as second only to the Bible in popularity with over a thousand medieval manuscript copies surviving.

    Though the text and illustrations of Barlaam und Josaphat focus on the men in these stories, the women in the prodigal son's parable are integral to that account. The sex workers in this illustration are part of a public brothel. Brothels were not necessarily a place where women were exploited and had no autonomy. In continental Europe brothels were legalized ways that civic authorities sought to control men's lust and guard "honest" women's virtue. This rationale was encouraged by religious thinkers including St. Augustine. The brothel keeper rented the building from municipal authorities and charged the sex workers for room and board. The brothel workers managed their fees and could hope to leave by saving money for a marriage dower that would allow them to "turn to honor." The figure of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute supported this act of redemption and change in status. While regulations survive for these business arrangements, there is also evidence of brothel keepers who used violence and intimidation to force women into sex work and debt bondage. Jamie Page has studied the case of the public brothel in Nördlingen in 1471 in which the keepers were brought to trial and banished. Women from the brothel testified to the abuses they suffered including a forced abortion and inability to leave the brothel. Subsequently the city council rewrote the regulations to avoid exploitation and required that brothel workers report any violation of the rules, so that the council could remedy it.

  • Source: J. Paul Getty Museum
  • Rights: Public domain. J. Paul Getty Museum, Open Content Program.
  • Subject (See Also): Bible- New Testament in Art Buddha and Buddhism Fashion Houses of Prostitution Prodigal Son (Biblical Figure) Prostitutes in Literature Sexuality in Art
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1469
  • Related Work: The Return of the Prodigal Son, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 9 (83.MR.179), fol. 107v.
    King Avenir Converses with Josaphat, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 9 (83.MR.179), fol. 29v. Note Josaphat's similarities in appearance and clothing with the prodigal son.
    Selected pages, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 9 (83.MR.179).
    Woman crowns the Prodigal Son with flowers, window, Chartres Cathedral, 1205-1215.
    The Prodigal Son window, Chartres Cathedral, 1205-1215.
    In the brothel (‘Frauenhaus’), German woodcut, c.1450. From "Inside the Medieval Brothel." History Today 69, 6 (June 2019).
  • Current Location: Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 9 (83.MR.179), fol. 106r
  • Original Location: France (formerly Germany), Alsace, Hagenau
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Paper; Ink; Colored washes; Tempera colors
  • Donor: Male religious (?); Johann IV. Von Falkenstein, Canon of Trier and from 1469 archdeacon of St. Kastor in Karden an der Mosel. Possible first owner if not original patron. The Falkenstein coat of arms appears on folio 2r.
    Source: Norbert H. Ott: Barlaam und Josaphat. Rudolf von Ems, ›Barlaam und Josaphat‹. Handschrift Nr. 12.2.3. In: Katalog der deutschsprachigen illustrierten Handschriften des Mittelalters (KdiH). Begonnen von Hella Frühmorgen-Voss. Fortgeführt von Norbert H. Ott zusammen mit Ulrike Bodemann. Band 2. München 1996. http://kdih.badw.de/datenbank/handschrift/12/2/3; zuletzt geändert am 22.01.2020.
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 28.6/20.3/
  • Inscription: The heading on this page may be translated as: Here rides the prodigal son the beautiful women welcome in a proud young man and leave him in a bad way so that he is out with the pigs
  • Related Resources:

    Kren, Thomas. Illuminated Manuscripts of Germany and Central Europe in the J. Paul Getty Museum. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009.

    Page, Jamie. “Inside the Medieval Brothel.” History Today 69, 6 (June 2019); 28-39. Available open access.

    Page, Jamie. "Masculinity and Prostitution in Late Medieval German Literature." Speculum 94, 3 (2019): 739-773.

    Page, Jamie. Prostitution and Subjectivity in Late Medieval Germany. Oxford University Press, 2021.

    Paolella, Christopher. Human Trafficking in Medieval Europe: Slavery, Sexual Exploitation and Prostitution. Amsterdam University Press, 2020. Chapter 5 "The Late Medieval Sex Trade", pages 215-245.

    Scott, David A., Narayan Khandekar, Michael R. Schilling, et al. "Technical Examination of a Fifteenth-Century German Illuminated Manuscript on Paper: A Case Study in the Identification of Materials." Studies in Conservation 46 (2001): 93-108.

    Scott, Margaret. Fashion in the Middle Ages. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.