The Scapegoat, By William Holman Hunt

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

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms