William Holman Hunt. The Scapegoat. 1854-1856. Oil on canvas Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (Liverpool). Click on image to enlarge it
The Scapegoat, which Hunt began to paint when he was unable to get Jewish models to sit for him in Jerusalem, is iconographically a far simpler picture than The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple: Hunt employs but a single image, that of the scapegoat which prefigures Christ's sufferings and redemptive death. This greater iconographical simplicity, which I believe is partly responsible for the work's failure, makes it an uncharacteristic example of Hunt's typological paintings; therefore I think that Herbert Sussman is essentially incorrect when he takes it as representative of the artist's productions.
Details from Hunt’s first version of the subject: Tate Britain Accession number 1906.2. This image is available to be shared and re-used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence (CC BY-NC-ND).
To be sure, in the manner of both The Finding and his earlier symbolic pictures, Hunt employed scriptural texts inscribed upon the frame to guide the spectator. First, he quotes from Isaiah 53:4 those lines conventionally taken as clear prophecies directly referring to Christ: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted." Writing about the entire chapter from which this passage is taken, Bishop Lowth (whose translation of Isaiah Hunt had used for the frame of The Awakening Conscience) insisted that it "declares the circumstances of our Saviour's sufferings so exactly, that it seems rather a history of his passion, than a prophecy. And it is so undeniable a proof of the truth of Christianity, that the bare reading of it, and comparing it with the gospel-history, hath converted some infidels" (Quoted by Thomas Scott as part of his commentary to Isaiah 53, Commentary, III, 267). Scott had explained the lines Hunt was to append to this painting:
William Holman Hunt. The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple/span>. 1854-60. Oil on canvas, 33 3/4 x 55 l/2 in. Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery.
The prophet, in the name of all believers, in every age and nation here breaks forth in admiration of the love of Christ, and the mystery of his vicarious sufferings. As every kind of misery springs from sin; so when Christ endured hardship in alleviating these miseries, by healing men's diseases, it might properly be considered a fulfillment of this prophecy, and a part of his general design . . . He endured our griefs and sorrows, becoming a sufferer to redeem us from eternal sufferings; and this, which should for ever endear him to mankind, caused the Jews to mistake his character, and to suppose that he was smitten of God, because he was a most atrocious sinner; as Job's friends construed his calamities into a proof of his undetected guilt. [Scott, Commentary, III, 268]
Scott's procedure in this passage, of which I have only quoted a small portion, consists in juxtaposing the apparently clear prophecies in Isaiah with other texts drawn from Old and New Testament, thus creating the impression that he has discovered an elaborate web of divine meaning which underlies all human history
By pairing these lines from Isaiah with the mention of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16:22, Hunt similarly tries to generate in the spectator a sense of the wonderful complexity with which God revealed his plan for man's salvation through Judaic history and ritual. although the text from Isaiah bears directly upon Christ, that from Leviticus instead presents a type of him: "And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited." Juxtaposing these two texts upon his frame not only sets the audience, like that of a preacher, within the proper context to appreciate the significance of the scapegoat, but also follows the procedure adopted in The Finding of bringing together types and prophecies.
As usual when Hunt employs a type, he devotes considerable attention to making the spectator realize the importance of its literal significance. He therefore included a long paragraph in the Royal Academy catalogue explaining the meaning of the scapegoat to ancient Judaism. After pointing out that he had painted the picture "at Osdoom, on the margin of the salt-encrusted shallows of the Dead Sea," he explained that two goats were chosen as part of the old levitical ritual for the Day of Atonement. One was offered to God as a propitiation for men's sins,
and while it was being sacrificed as a burnt offering, the congregation present manifested their impatience by calling upon the priest to hasten the departure of the scapegoat, and afterwards by following the beast as he was led away by the man appointed, to a cliff about ten miles from Jerusalem; tormenting it by the way, and shouting, "Hasten, carry away our sins."
The red fillet which he depicted bound about the animal's horns was placed there, he adds, because of the belief that if God accepted the propitiation "the scarlet would become white (in accordance with the promise in Isaiah: "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow: though they be red as crimson, they shall be as wool") (Quoted in Bennett 42). This description of the ritual expiation makes quite clear the elaborate parallels between the prophecy in Isaiah and the levitical type - just as it also makes clear the way this ritual tormenting of the goat prefigures the Passion. Hunt cites talmudic sources in support of his description, but in fact standard biblical commentaries provide much the same information. For instance, Thomas Scott explains in great detail the nature and original significance of this rite, adding an elaborate typological reading of it:
Christ "bare our sins in his own body on the tree"; they were imputed to him, and he bare the punishment due to them: this was typified by the goat which was slain and burnt. He then ascended into heaven, and by his intercession grounded on his atonement, renders our persons and services accepted: this was typified by the high priest entering with the blood and incense into the most holy place. In consequence of this, the sins of all believers are entirely forgiven; and they are dealt with, as if they had never committed them: this was shadowed by the scape-goat sent away into the wilderness. (Commentary on Leviticus 16:20-2, Scott, I, 365. See also, I, 362-9 for Scott's detailed comments on the scapegoat's prefigurative relation to Christ; and Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, II, 312, 541.)
The entire ritual of expiation provided an elaborate material prefiguration of Christ's career and purpose, and the Christian was supposed to meditate upon it, both to perceive God's presence in history and to experience the sufferings of Christ.
For a twentieth-century audience it is necessary to emphasize that to the Victorian worshipper there was nothing in the slightest eccentric about such detailed readings of Leviticus. In fact, this book of the Bible, the source of the so-called legal types, provides a particularly important test case for the entire method of reading the scriptures for types and shadows of Christ; and it was therefore a very popular subject for Evangelical sermons and tracts. Since nineteenth-century believers in the literal truth of the Bible thought that all portions of the scriptures were equally valuable, equally relevant, to the worshipper, they had frequent recourse to typological readings, which furnish a powerful demonstration of the essential unity of Old and New Testaments. The sections in Leviticus giving directions for rituals in a long-destroyed Temple confronted the reader with difficulties: what did these abrogated laws of an alien religion have to say to him? Once he realized that God had instituted the practice of animal sacrifice as a means of showing that man cannot live up to the moral law and hence needs some form of expiation, then it became clear that all these rites are anticipations of Christ which God has recorded to allow the modern believer to feel the order and necessity of the Divine Plan.
Perhaps because the application of types to Leviticus produced such dramatic results, it remained a great favorite with the writers. The very fact that one could arrive at such unexpected truths was itself a major argument in favor of the validity of this mode of Bible reading. As Fairbairn stated this common argument, "a proper understanding of the Typology of Scripture" not only "imparts an air of grandeur to its smallest incidents, and makes the little relatively great," it also "warrants us to proceed a step further," recognizing that apparently unimportant details and incidents of the Bible are central to its meaning and method. "It was precisely the limited and homely character of many of the things related which rendered them such natural and easy stepping-stones to the discoveries of a higher dispensation" (I, 218).
Here, then, is one of the major justifications of Hunt's choice of such an apparently unimportant, even bizarrely humble subject for a supposedly important religious picture: this mere animal, this goat, is intended to serve as a meditative image from which we can derive all the wonders of Christ's sacrifice for man. It not only provides us with a powerful physical image of suffering, which we are to understand as referring to the far greater sufferings of Christ, but it also places the image of this animal in its proper spiritual context, enabling us to observe how wonderfully God structured sacred history to inform man of coming salvation. This picture of a suffering goat was intended to furnish the occasion for a profoundly moving meditation on the life of Christ, and on the nature of sin and suffering and God's entire gospel scheme as well.
Unfortunately, however effectively such a program might work within Victorian sermons and poems, it does not do so in The Scapegoat. For one thing it is a very realistic painting, and Hunt's image of a suffering goat is far too obtrusive: it commands our attention too much, distracting us from precisely those spiritual ideas it was supposed to convey. Part of the distraction arises in Hunt's realistic technique which renders so well every detail of the animal's wool, for this detailed portrayal of visual fact really has no iconographic significance and hence dilutes the picture's intended meaning. In both "Accident and the Necessity of Art" (166-69) and Art and Visual Perception (114-20), Rudolf Arnheim has shown how realism increasingly introduces the accidental, the disorderly, and the insignificant; and this is precisely what has happened in the realistic image of this dying goat: whereas Hunt had been able to combine naturalism with an elaborate iconography in The Finding. here the details escape his control, assuming a life and meaning of their own - or rather a life and absence of meaning of their own. Furthermore, Hunt has given the animal an almost human expression, which strikes one as ludicrously sentimental rather than deeply moving. A third difficulty arises from Hunt's unfortunate placement of the animal so close to the picture plane. Ruskin, who was sympathetic to the painter's intentions if not his result, pointed out in his Academy Notes that he had "hardly ever seen a composition left apparently almost to chance, come so unluckily; the insertion of the animal in the exact centre of the canvas making it look as if it were painted for a sign" (14.66). Ruskin is incorrect in asserting that The Scapegoat's composition is a matter of accident, because Hunt purposefully thrust the goat upon the spectator to make him realize its sufferings - and to prevent him from mistaking the picture for a mere oriental version of a straying animal. However much one might feel that this painting would have been vastly more successful if Hunt had placed the goat farther back in the picture space, he did not do so because his conception of his subject required him to confront us directly and forcefully. Unfortunately, the results of this confrontation are disastrous.
The painting not only is a formal and aesthetic failure, but it has iconographic problems as well. I do not mean that the artist's choice of the image of the scapegoat as a type of Christ was either mistaken or eccentric, since he chose a commonplace scriptural image and gave it a standard interpretation. I long believed that when the painter encountered complete incomprehension on the part of many critics, his problem was only that he had the wrong audience: the Evangelicals, who would immediately have understood his work, were in general unlikely to pay much attention to painting, while the art world had few who knew much about Evangelical readings of scripture. Such an explanation contains part of the truth, to be sure, yet one must not overemphasize the amount of hostility or lack of understanding that greeted The Scapegoat. According to Hunt's own descriptions of the critical reception of his picture in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, one would assume that no one had either understood it or had a favorable word to say about it, but Hunt was trying to demonstrate what a difficult time he had had in the early years of the Brotherhood, and he included only hostile reviews. Hunt's version of the critical climate has misled some recent students of Pre-Raphaelitism. Sussman, for example, only draws upon those reviews quoted by Hunt, thus producing a false impression of the work's reception.
Ruskin's discussion of the painting, which shows it needed to be defended from The Times, does suggest that those from an Evangelical background understood the meaning of the picture; and Ruskin was not the only member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle to do so.
The Passover in the Holy Family: Gathering Bitter Herbs by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). 1855-56 Watercolor. 16 x 17inches. Courtesy Tate Britain.
Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
In 1856 when Rossetti was at work on his typological Passover in the Holy Family, he wrote to William Allingham that Hunt was sending The Scapegoat to the Royal Academy: "a grand thing, but not for the public," and although one cannot be certain he understood the symbolic intentions of the work, his own concern with this kind of representation makes it seem most likely (Letter of April 1856, Letters, I, 300). While Hunt was still at work on the picture in the Middle East, Charles Collins expressed enthusiasm for the subject, showing he grasped its symbolism quite well:
I was especially struck with the noble idea of the Scapegoat. It is a glorious subject full of wild terror and (much more) one of the strongest and most unmistakable types of Him who bore our sins and was wounded for our transgressions and as that it becomes a theme of the utmost[?] and most touching interest and importance. I envy you the subject, only glad that it has got into better hands than mine. [ALS 7 February 1855; London (Huntington MS).]
Since Collins himself had earlier employed types of Christ in Berengaria's Alarm, his comprehension is not surprising, and it adds to the evidence that Hunt was not quite as isolated in his use of such iconography as the memoirs made it appear.
One must emphasize that not all the reviewers disliked the picture or found it hard to understand. The Illustrated London News considered The Scapegoat such an important painting that it several times praised it in the course of discussing other works. When writing about H. B. Willis's A Family Group, which was exhibited at the National Institution in 1857, the reviewer for the Illustrated London News commented that goats, the subject of this painting, have been naturally associated with the Old Testament, for these same animals accompanied "the Patriarchs in their wanderings; forming one of the subjects of the most acceptable sacrifice, and being made a type and emblem of Him, who bare the sins of the guilty world. The Scapegoat has, however, been a work pictorially well treated by Mr. Hunt, in his remarkable work exhibited last year at the Royal Acad ('"A Family Group." Painted by H. B. Willis', Illustrated London News 16 May 1857, .395). The previous year when this periodical commented upon the Crystal Palace Picture Galleries, it had also singled out Hunt's picture as an example of Pre-Raphaelite excellence (19 July , 73). Another bit of evidence suggesting that at least some members of the picture buying public comprehended Hunt's typological iconography appears in a letter of August 25, 1864 Hunt received from J. F. Miller of Glasgow, offering to commission a painting of the commonplace type from Genesis 3 :15 of Christ" s ultimate conquest of Satan: "And I will put enmity between thee [the serpent] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (Rylands Eng. MS. 1216).
Contemporary notices of London art exhibitions show that while such use of prefigurative symbolism was not commonplace in Victorian painting, it was not entirely unknown either. The Art-Journal's review of the 1854 Royal Academy exhibition described a Holy Family by one A. Roberts, "suggested by passages in the second chapter of St. Luke ... the intention being to show the Saviour, while yet a youth, in the household of Joseph and Mary, with allusions to the Redemption" ('Royal Academy. The Exhibition, 1854," 16 (1854), 165). Since this was the only picture ever exhibited by Roberts at the Royal Academy or at any other London exhibition, it is difficult to know how far and consistently he developed such symbolism. On the other hand, because his painting was not accompanied by a gloss in the official catalogue, the Art-Journal's identification of the scriptural source and prefigurative symbolism suggests such iconography was not completely obscure to the reviewer either.
In 1856, the year Hunt exhibited The Scapegoat, William Cave Thomas, a painter of many scriptural subjects, sent The Heir Cast Out of the Vineyard to the Royal Academy, and this picture, like Hunt's, used typological symbolism. It was accompanied by a text from Matthew 21:38-9: "But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir, come let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him." According to the Art-Journal "we see . . . the Saviour driven forth, followed by a crowd who scourge and insult him. The spirit of parable is sustained in an allusion to the crucifixion in the appearance of the cross in the tumultuous procession. One remarkable figure, on the right, stoops to cut a thorn wherewith to beat Christ" (18 , 173). This picture, which employed one of Christ's own parables as a type, makes a somewhat more complex use of this form of symbolism than W. C. T. Dobson's Bethlehem (1860). The Art-Journal describes the scene of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Christ: "a lamb lies bound on the floor — this is, of course, a type of the Saviour; and if this be a type, a man at the door dragging in a dog that advances unwillingly must also have a signification, but that is obscure" (22 , 167).
That the Art-Journal's writers found such symbolism comprehensible again appears in 1862 in one of its notices on "Art in the Continental States" which favorably comments on Flandrin's friezes in the Church of St. Germain des Pres, pointing out that the artist's "idea in these compositions . . . seems to be the development of Christianity as recorded in the Bible and New Testament — the typical in the Bible, the realisation in the New Testament" (15). But perhaps the most interesting symbolic work noticed by this periodical is one whose symbolism it did not understand - Landseer's An Offering, which was exhibited at the 1861 British Institution. Ignorant of the painting's meaning, the reviewer commented that "The title is curt and unsatisfactory," adding that Landseer's picture "presents simply a goat bound and laid upon a pile, as if for a burnt offering, according to Leviticus IX:15, "And he took the goat, which was the sin offering for the people, and slew it, and offered it for sin, as the first." (69).
Hunt had wanted the great animal painter to attempt the subject of The Scapegoat, but had finally painted it himself. It is not clear whether Landseer later took the painter's suggestion, consciously trying to outdo him at his own subject, or came independently to paint one of the most common types. Landseer's gloss enforces his meaning with clarity, particularly if one takes the final phrase "as the first" (as many preachers did) to imply that a greater sacrifice would have to be made to save man. although the Art-Journal here failed to see Landseer's prefiguration of the sacrifice of Christ, it often did correctly interpret prefigurative symbolism, and its notices demonstrate that during the 1850s and "60s painters other than Hunt were employing types and figures of Christ in their works
The iconographic problems we encounter in The Scapegoat, then, do not derive primarily from any obscurity, since a fairly large segment of Hunt's audience found such symbolism intelligible. With the assistance of scriptural texts and catalogue commentary, the audience could be expected to understand what Hunt intended. The iconographic difficulties arise not from the type employed, but from the way Hunt employed it. More than any of his other typological paintings, The Scapegoatis a mere static emblem, and one whose pictorial nature tends to struggle against the meaning the artist sought to impose upon it. Of his pictures which use typological symbolism, only The Shadow of Death comes close to being as static as The Scapegoat, and Hunt achieved this effect of stasis by freezing a dramatic action — that of Christ's prayer at the end of a day's labor while his mother looks doubtfully at the gifts of the Magi. In The Scapegoat, on the other hand, one comes upon a mere goat, and it alone must bear all the painting's symbolism. Hunt did attempt to create the proper verbal context for his image, but all the drama (as well as all the symbolic details) exists in the language of the glosses, and the canvas contains none of them. His earlier works, such as The Awakening Conscience, make every possible detail function iconographically, and he carried this integration of realism and symbolism even further in The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. In The Scapegoat the only possible contributory details are the fillet on the animal's head, which is simply one of its attributes, and the powerful representation of the Dead Sea and of the desert wasteland which surrounds it. This provides the literal surroundings of the dying goat, intensifying its sufferings, but because these agonies are supposed to prefigure those of Christ, the landscape does not function as symbolically as the animal itself. Again, Hunt's naturalism has distracted us from his deeper meaning, rather than led us to it.
Since one of the problems with this picture is that the iconography is chiefly limited to the goat itself, it is worthwhile noting that Hunt changed this symbolism from an earlier version. In his original oil study, now at Manchester, the painter juxtaposed the scapegoat, one type of Christ, to a rainbow, another type, another type of the Saviour and his mercies (For a detailed discussion of the iconography of the rainbow in Victorian painting, see Landow, 'The Rainbow: A Problematic Image', in Nature and the Victorian Imagination, ed. G. B. Tennyson and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley, 1977). We know that Hunt encountered a rainbow on his first sight of Osdoom, the Dead Sea setting of the picture (See letter quoted in Bennett, Hunt, .44). His decision to use a white, rather than a black, animal for the final version of The Scapegoat may have been one reason he decided to abandon the rainbow. A more important reason had to have been that thus contrasted, the images do not function very coherently: whereas the rainbow in Millais's Blind Girl promises hope, salvation, and new vision to the young beggar, in Hunt's picture it seems to promise these to the goat. Because the point of the picture is to record the horrifying sufferings of Christ as they were prefigured in an Old Testament ritual, such an implication had to be removed. Even if we read the rainbow as a promise to the spectator, it still interferes with the basic iconography of the picture. In the final version of The Scapegoat where Hunt simplified his symbolism by removing the apparently confusing element of its iconography, he produced an atypical work, one which is not only static but which does not employ his characteristic counterpointing of symbolic detail.
Links to Related Material
- The black first version of The Scapegoat
- Two Versions of William Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat Compared
Last modified 27 December 2021