The Scapegoat

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The Scapegoat, 1854.

The Scapegoat is an oil painting by William Holman Hunt in the Pre-Raphaelite style. Hunt began painting it at Oosdoom by the Dead Sea in 1854 and finished it in his studio in London. The painting is a depiction of a lonely goat in a desolate wasteland. It's horns are adorned with red cloth signifying that this sad creature is a scapegoat, and the skeletons littered around it foretell the poor animal's fate. The barbaric Jewish ritual of the scapegoat is described in the Book of Leviticus: the sins of the townsfolk are placed onto a young healthy goat with the blood-red cloth and the animal is banished from the town to die in the wilderness as a blood sacrifice to Yahweh thereby nullify the crimes of the townsfolk.

Thinking about this painting is very emotional for me. The pathetic beast has no idea what's going to happen to it despite being surrounded by skeletons of its kin. The sun is setting, not just on the harsh wilderness, but on the goat's very life, and soon nocturnal predators will come to tear it to shreds. And why? Because a primitive people believe that through its death they will be spared from the violent wrath of their volcano god. It's a belief of justice through proxy, which is both immoral and tragic, and the idea that this happens year after year for thousands of years to thousands of goats is very depressing.

The lifelike quality of the painting only adds to the barbarism. The shaggy goat's fur is practically pettable, and his open mouth and protruding tongue are captured in a very life-like bleat for help that will never come. The purple mountains and reflective water on the uninviting salt flats really help frame the feeble goat and make you wish you could rescue him. Hunt was a Christian and painted this picture as a means of converting Jews to Christianity by trying to impress upon them how the crucifixion of Jesus was effectively the ultimate scapegoat, therefore ending the need for practicing this disgusting ritual. But, for me, this painting powerfully illustrates how utterly abominable a god would have to be to demand such a repugnant act. Hunt sought to convert me, but ironically only helped pushed me further away from his views.

Two paintings were made of this depiction. The preliminary painting uses darker, but more colorful, tones and includes a rather out-of-place rainbow considering how dark the scene is. The final version is a bit lighter, but more drab. The goat is lighter as well and the rainbow is gone. I presume the earlier painting was the very same painting Hunt began on location.