The Scapegoat painting: (1854- 1856)

William Holman Hunt is the creator of the popular Scapegoat painting. Hunt was a 19th Century British painter.

William Holman Hunt
William Holman Hunt

He was born on 2nd April 1827 and he died on 7th September 1910. Apart from being a painter, he was also the founder of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood. This was founded in 1848.

The Scapegoat painting- An Introduction

The Scapegoat painting was made between 1854 to 1856. This painting depicts the scapegoat described in the ‘Book of Leviticus’. This is the third book of the Pentateuch in the Bible.  On the Day of Atonement, a goat’s horn would be wrapped with a red cloth. This day comes after Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

Scapegoat Painting
Scapegoat Painting

Basically, The Scapegoat painting was made between 1854 to 1856. This painting depicts the scapegoat described in the ‘Book of Leviticus’. This is the third book of the Pentateuch in the Bible.  On the Day of Atonement, a goat’s horn would be wrapped with a red cloth. This day comes after Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Jews ask for forgiveness for their sins to their God to secure their fate on this day. It is also known as Sabbath of Sabbaths

Holman’s journey of the Scapegoat painting

Holman completed this painting on his trip to the Holy Land and this was his only major work completed there. He traveled post a crisis of religious faith. In order to experience the relationship between faith and truth, he wanted to have the experience of the actual location mentioned in the Biblical narrative.

The religious subject was one genre which he always wanted to paint. Following this, Holman started working on the Scapegoat painting in 1854 during his visit to Holy Land. He believed that visiting the Holy Land would help him understand his faith better.

This was one reason for Holman to do the Scapegoat painting. According to his interpretation Scapegoat was a forerunner of the New Testament of Christ. The way Jesus suffered and died carrying the burden of man’s sins, in a similar way the scapegoat suffered and died. This basically was the analogy attached to this painting.

He traveled to Jerusalem first, in June 1854. The Dead Sea resembled sin according to him. He stayed here and painted the landscape which became the backdrop for the painting. He made a preliminary sketch of the goat. However, the goat refused to be a still model and made it difficult for Holman to paint.

However, Holman was forced to move to Jerusalem due to bad weather. Since he had not completed the painting, Holman decided to purchase the goat. He also carried some Dead sea mud and stones to his studio in Jersulam. However, the goat died on the journey. He purchased another goat and continued painting. He also purchased a skeleton of a camel and a skull of an ibex which he incorporated in his painting.

Significance of the Scapegoat painting

The Scapegoat painting has a powerful significance behind it. The Jewish tradition believed that each person’s fate for the coming year was inscribed in a book ‘The Book of Life’ on Rosh Hashanah which literally means the Head of the year. God waits until Yom Kippur to seal a person’s fate. Yom Kippur is the tenth day after Rosh Hashanah. These ten days are days of Awe. On these days it is believed that Jews try to improve their behavior and ask for forgiveness to God for all the evil things they would have done.

The evenings of Yom Kippur is kept for a public and private petition where a person gets to confess his guilt and hopes that at the end of Yom Kipper, God would forgive the person’s sins.

Holman Style of Painting the Scapegoat

Holman started painting this picture on the shore of the Dead Sea. Later he continued the painting in his studio in London. There are two versions of this painting. A small version wherein bright colors are used and the goat is painted as dark-haired and there is a rainbow. This painting is at Manchester Art Gallery.

Small Version of Scapegoat Painting at Manchester Art Gallery
Small Version of Scapegoat Painting at Manchester Art Gallery

The larger version of Scapegoat has a more dull color with a light-haired goat. This painting is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight. Both these paintings were created around the same period. The smaller version is described as ‘preliminary’ to the larger version. The larger version was the one exhibited.

Larger version of the Scapegoat painting at Lady Lever Art Gallery
Larger version of the Scapegoat painting at Lady Lever Art Gallery

Holman describes the landscape he painted as ‘beautifully arranged horrible wilderness.’ Art critic Peter Fuller described the landscape of the painting as a ‘terrible image of the world’ and a God-forsaken wasteland.

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