The Scapegoat, By William Holman Hunt

(1854-6), 86.5 x 139.9 cms, National Museums Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery

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Animals – and especially painted animals – have always been at the mercy of humankind. We prettify them (I saw a West Highland white terrier with its coat dyed a gorgeous pink on the streets of Clapham just the other day).

We raise them up as symbols. We invite them to the abattoir and, having done so, we profit by and praise them for their yielding tenderness when dismembered on the platter. Some animals we characterise as noble – who cannot admire the nobility of Jonathan Swift's Houyhnhnms, for example, in the final section of Gulliver's Travels? – even as we run them into the ground on the racetrack. Others – bearers of pestilence, for example – we quietly fear and despise. Remember the horror-inducing old saw that there are more rats underneath the streets of London than there are humans walking its trembling pavements?

Here is a goat, a dying goat, in a biblical wilderness. What does this dying goat mean in this luridly colourful and almost apocalyptic context, at this dying hour of a dying day, beside the Dead Sea? (Yes, Holman Hunt painted the background to the painting in this scrupulously faithful biblical context). In order to answer that question, we have to examine part of the freight of meanings by which the goat has been burdened since time immemorial. We also have to remember that many paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite school, of which this is a sample, tend to have designs upon us. They were morality tales, intended to serve as a corrective to human behaviour. This is such a painting. And yet it is also more than that. In fact, its greatness lies in the fact that it has managed both to embody and to rise above its burden of symbolic associations, something that cannot so easily be said of other religious paintings by Holman Hunt, which seem to be imaginatively limited by their clumsily evident wish to manipulate us.

In the Gospel According to St Matthew, it is the goats, those disobedient ones that have strayed from the true path of their own accord, who are cast aside on Judgement Day. Meanwhile, those stupidly obedient sheep are ushered through the gates of paradise. (Stupidity is no bar to salvation, thank goodness.) So a goat is a rejected thing. But what of a scapegoat, which is how this goat has been described by William Holman Hunt, the fervently evangelical Christian who painted this strangely lit scene whose presence seems to conjure up not so much orthodox religion as science fiction?

A scapegoat is not necessarily a goat at all, of course. A scapegoat is one who is to be blamed for the wrongdoing of others. That definition edges us towards the meaning of this painting. The biblical goat in this painting can be thought of in relation to both the Old and the New Testaments. It seems to straddle them both. First of all, it is the sacrificial goat of the Old Testament, the one which is killed as a propitiation for the sins of the Israelites. This interpretation is alluded to in the two quotations from the Old Testament that can be read at the top and the bottom of the gorgeous gilded frame that was designed and executed by Hunt himself. In addition to those quotations, there are other marks on that frame, to left and to right. One shows us the dove of peace with an olive branch, and the other heartsease.

The other sacrifice alluded to here is that of Christ himself, who sacrificed himself to atone for the sins of the world. What is this splash of red wool across the goat's brow if not an allusion to the crown of thorns? So there is to be no letting up on the pressure upon us to interpret this painting in a certain way. These inscriptions bind this painting to particular meanings – as they also do in the case of many other paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites. Anyone who has seen the exhibition that is currently running at Tate Britain (in which this painting is included) will be able to see that for themselves.

And yet this is also a great painting in spite of these meanings. We admire it for its fantastical qualities too – it is weirdly premonitory of a painter like Salvador Dali. Look at the attention Holman Hunt has given to the coat of this goat, how, almost combed, it shines so luxuriously amid all these skeletal bits and pieces. In its raising up of this humble, collapsing goat, it is far too exotically weird, crazed and hallucinogenic a work to be claimed by orthodox religion alone.

About the artist: William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was one of the three founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and his fervent evangelicalism led him to produce a body of religious paintings that were hugely admired in mid-Victorian England. The Light of the World, his image of a lantern-bearing Christ knocking at a door in an unruly orchard toured the world like any latter-day celebrity.