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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Scapegoat



William Holman Hunt. (2 April 1827 – 7 September 1910)
The Scapegoat. 1854-1856.
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (Liverpool).
Oil on canvas 87 cm x 139.8 cm (34' 1/4" x 55")
Signed, dated and inscribed: Osdoom Dead Sea/18 WHH 54

Inscribed on the frame:
'Surely he hath borne our Griefs, and carried our Sorrows/Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD, and afflicted.' (Isaiah LIII, 4)
'And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited.' (Leviticus XVI, 22)


William Holman Hunt was an English painter. He was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Their religious approach to art was influenced by the spiritual qualities of medieval art, in opposition to the alleged rationalism of the Renaissance embodied by Raphael.

Hunt became famous initially for his religious paintings such as The Light of the World (now in the chapel at Keble College, Oxford, with a later copy in St Paul's Cathedral), which toured Britain and the United States.

After travelling to the Holy Land in search of accurate topographical and ethnographical material for further religious works, Hunt painted The Scapegoat.

While in the Holy Land, he researched deeply into ceremonies of Jewish worship. He steeped himself in the Old Testament and Talmudic commentaries, familiarizing himself with the principal holidays and rituals. For him, it was important to see the actual landscapes and light of the particular sites mentioned in the Bible. Hunt's ambition was to be as factually precise as possible. He believed in Naturalism, Realism and accuracy.

He believed that Art's highest vocation was to be the handmaid to religion and purity, instead of to mere animal enjoyment and sensuality. Hunt was of the view that art`s power and duty was as an exponent of the higher duties of religion.

Hunt began to paint The Scapegoat when he was unable to get Jewish models to sit for him in Jerusalem. At the time there was Jewish resentment against the activities of various missionary societies operating in the area.

Two very similar-appearing billy goats were brought into the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur as part of the Holy Service of that day. The high priest cast lots for the two goats. One goat was offered as a burnt offering. The second goat was the scapegoat. The high priest placed his hands on the head of the goat and confessed the sins of the people of Israel. The scapegoat was led away and let go in the wilderness according to Leviticus 16:22.

In Christian theology, the story of the scapegoat in Leviticus is interpreted as a symbolic prefiguration of the self-sacrifice of Jesus, who takes the sins of humanity on his own head, having been driven into the 'wilderness' outside the city by order of the high priest.

The goat has the imprint of blood on its head. A scarlet ribbon is tied to him. According to the Talmud, when the red ribbon turns to white, the sins are forgiven. The goat is obviously dying. The eyeballs roll in its head. Its tongue droops from its mouth. Its plight is highlighted by the inhospitable surroundings into which it has been cast. It is in desert, the floor is salt slime. There is no drinking water. The remains of dead animals prefigure its certain fate. The goat is sick, helpless, on the point of death.

The British consul, Finn, who was present when Hunt was in Palestine wrote of the execution of the painting:

"A suitably wretched starved goat was found, and its likeness was taken; but to obtain the true colouring of the Moab mountains by sunset, at the right time of the year for the Day of Atonement, which is also the best time of the year for the gorgous tints of the mountains, Hunt undertook the venture of residing in the most desolate of places near the south end of the Dead Sea, at an unhealthy season, and attended only by a dragoman, and one Arab guide, or sometimes two. Admirable courage and love of art!"

The area Hunt selected for the landscape was near the range of limestone and salt hills at the southwest tip, the region known in Arabic as the Kharbet Usdum (Hunt's "Oosdoom"). It is thought that this is probably traceable etymologically to Sodom. The ground is a large desolate area of salt mud flats in the plain of the Dead Sea.

The theme of the scapegoat which prefigures Christ's sufferings and redemptive death is underscored by the frame: the quotations and the symbols on it.

It is a heavily didactic work. The symbolism is perhaps too rich. It is a product of the earnest Evangelical piety which characterised the times.

It was the time of the early stages of the Crimean War. The dispute between France and Russia over the sovereignity of the Holy Land and the various Christian sites had greatly exacerbated the underlying tensions between the warring powers over the Eastern Question in the years prior to the outbreak of war. It is generally regarded as the first modern conflict which introduced major technological changes in the science of warfare. Further some of the major forces of Western European Christendom had aligned themselves with the Ottoman Empire against another Western European Christian power - Russia.

The Scriptural references to the Old Testament underlined Hunt`s and other Evangelical`s` views about how God revealed his plan for man's salvation through Judaic history and ritual. Detailed readings of Leviticus were a very popular subject for Evangelical sermons and tracts of the period.

Hunt`s views towards the Jews were not modern. He believed that efforts should be made for the conversion of Jewry. The goat in its isolation is the Torah superseded, declaring that Judaism's only value was to prepare the way for Christianity. Again, these views were typical of the period and setting.

We tend to forget that it was only in 1829 that Roman Catholics were freed from most of the civil disabilities in English law. However, those of the Jewish faith in England had to struggle on for another thirty years before they were released from similar disabilities in terms of the law.

It was only on July 26, 1858, that Baron Lionel de Rothschild took the oath required by Parliament with covered head, substituting "so help me, Jehovah" for the ordinary form of oath, and took his seat as the first Jewish member of Parliament. See The Emancipation of the Jews in England.

The picture has a lot of "baggage". Too many themes and symbols when one delves into it. Too much a product of its particular time and place.

Contemporaries of Hunt were mixed in their reactions to the picture. Ruskin thought it a "total failure".

Does it work today ? Probably not.

The message and themes which Hunt wished to convey were laid on with a trowel. A more subtle and less didactic approach is more attractive.

The message(s) is/are intellectual. Does it touch one`s feelings ? Probably not, except that one might feel sorry at the suffering of a dying goat and anger at the artist painting the subject for not giving it a drink and helping it.

Hunt`s ambivalent attitude towards Jewry is and should not be acceptable.

The attention to detail is admirable. But it requires a great deal of time and energy to take it all in and consider the many symbols and themes inherent in the work.

The themes are confused and complex and not readily taken up. It perhaps reflects the confusion in Hunt who at the time seems to have been labouring under a number of personal and spiritual conflicts. One could easily simply regard it as a picture of a dying goat in a desert.

It is a work not for a church but an art gallery or a private collection. The subject and the composition do not lend themselves easily to contemplation and prayer.