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'The Scapegoat', William Holman Hunt

Goat in an icy landscape

  • Oil on canvas 87 cm x 139.8 cm (34' 1/4" x 55")
  • Signed, dated and inscribed: Osdoom Dead Sea/18 WHH 54
  • Held at the Lady Lever Art Gallery

Inscribed on the frame:

'Surely he hath borne our Griefs, and carried our Sorrows/Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD, and afflicted.' (Isaiah LIII, 4)

'And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited.' (Leviticus XVI, 22)


This was the first major painting Hunt made during his first stay in the Holy Land. He had the idea for the picture while studying the Talmud (the collection of ancient Rabbinic writings that forms the basis of religious authority in Orthodox Judaism) for information on Jewish ritual for his painting 'The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple' (now in Sudley House). Hunt's researches disclosed that on the Festival of the Day of Atonement, a goat was ejected from the temple with a scarlet piece of woolen cloth on its head. It was goaded and driven, either to death or into the wilderness, carrying with it the sins of the congregation. It was believed that if these sins were forgiven the scarlet cloth would turn white. Hunt regarded the Old Testament scapegoat as a prefigurement of the New Testament Christ whose suffering and death similarly expunged man's sins.

In the Book of Leviticus (which is quoted on the frame) the goat is said to bear the iniquities into a land that was not inhabited. Hunt chose to set his goat in a landscape of quite hideous desolation - it is the shore of the Dead Sea at Osdoom with the mountains of Edom in the distance. In his diary Hunt described this setting as 'a scene of beautifully arranged horrible wilderness' and he saw the Dead Sea as a 'horrible figure of sin', believing as did many at this time that it was the original site of the city of Sodom.

Initially, Hunt considered that the subject might be suitable for the animal painter Landseer, who, in the 1840s, had taken to producing threatening symbolic lochside scenes with deer. However, in March 1855, Hunt wrote to Rossetti saying that it was seeing for the first time the extraordinary sight of the Dead Sea that decided him to tackle the subject himself. Hunt returned to the edge of the sea with guides and spent about two weeks painting in the landscape and making sketches and notes. He took a white goat with him but he left blank that part of the picture that the animal occupies and did not paint the beast until he returned to his Jerusalem studio. Whilst at Osdoom, Hunt's life was at risk from hostile tribesmen. The insistence of his guides that they get away from this dangerous spot led to his leaving earlier than he wished. He took back samples of mud and salt to help him finish the foreground. In Jerusalem Hunt also bought or borrowed sheep and goat skulls and a full camel skeleton.

Hunt sold the picture for 450 guineas. A smaller version with a black goat and a rainbow symbolising hope and forgiveness of sins, is in Manchester Art Gallery. View Manchester Art Gallery's version of 'The Scapegoat' here.

Lever bought the picture in 1923 for £4950. It was exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery in the 1923 Autumn Exhibition and was then transferred to the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

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Elsewhere on the web

In 2009, the BBC television drama 'Desperate Romantics' - about the Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Millais - featured 'The Scapegoat' in episode four of the series. See a zoomable version of the painting with expert commentary on the BBC website.