Thursday, 18 September 2008


"It reminds me of The Scapegoat," remarked Sheila as we drove past a group of long-horned goats scrambling among the rocks and scrubbery beside a road over the mountains in Kalymnos.

And Sheila was right! The goat in front of us was definitely a relative of the hapless creature depicted in what is, I think, one of the most disturbing paintings ever made.

Click to enlarge

Painted in 1856 by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat is laden with symbolism: it depicts a ritual that formed part of the ceremonies of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in Judaism during the times of the Temple in Jerusalem. As described in Leviticus Chapter 16, the scapegoat was one of two goats chosen by lot. One was used as a sacrifice, the other was released into the wild to carry the sins of the people out of their community...
Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness... The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.
It was from this ritual that we get the concept of someone being a 'scapegoat' or, in modern parlance, the 'patsy' or the 'fall guy'...

The Christian interpretation of this Judaic law - which was foremost in Holman Hunt's intentions - was that Jesus had become the ultimate scapegoat, bearing the sins of all humanity when he was 'sent out', beyond the city walls of Jerusalem, to die on the cross - but with the caveat that, being resurrected, he broke the chain of guilt and punishment once and for all.

Hunt painted the picture - posing a real goat, we are told, among the salt wastes at Oosdoomon the edge of the Dead Sea - and had the painting framed to incorporate two biblical quotations:
Surely he hath borne our Griefs and carried our Sorrows; Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD and afflicted. (Isaiah 53:4)

And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited. (Leviticus 16:22)
You can read a full interpretation of Hunt's painting in an article by Albert Boime.

I had seen many reproductions of the picture, but when I first encountered the original in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Liverpool, I realised why I found it so difficult to look at it with anything other than the queasiest of sensations...

What I really dislike about this painting is the all-pervasive atmosphere of sickliness: the sallow moon in the top left hand corner; the bilious sky and livid mountains; the stagnant water in the distance; the yellow, salt-caked shallows in the foreground; the blackened weeds and the skeletons and horns of former victims.

And then the goat itself: the bloodied hand print of the priest upon its head and the helpless, lurching, gait which, together with the rolled up eyes, tells us that the poor creature is limping towards imminent death...

Whatever message Hunt wanted to convey it is, to my my mind, negated by its terrible tastelessness.

Personally, I'd rather have my Kalymnian goats...

Images: Brian Sibley © 2008

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