By placing the prodigal son in a large Franconian farm yard, Dürer has strayed significantly from the text and the iconographic tradition. Traditionally, the prodigal son as a swineherd was shown standing by his animals in a field, but Dürer brought the parable of guilt and unconditional grace 'closer to home'. By allowing himself such leeway he was able to allude to several different aspects of the parable within a single image. The large, dilapidated farm buildings signify loss, and illustrate both the prodigal son's current misery and his former wealth. His posture, with his head raised towards the church in the background, simultaneously expresses despair, humility and hope for salvation.
The present work marks an early high point in Dürer ability to describe space and depth, and textures and surfaces - from the pigs' bristles to the shingled roofs and crumbling brick walls. With such mastery on display it is difficult to understand why he encountered such problems describing the youth's kneeling pose. Yet, despite this youthful flaw in draughtsmanship, The Prodigal Son was a great success. It was much admired by his contemporaries and widely disseminated and copied. Rainer Schoch has even identified a 16th century Persian miniature based on the composition.