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The Scapegoat

Alexis Drahos* re-interprets a famous religious icon.

Geoscientist 19.6 June 2009

  • 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)

The Scapegoat, by Hunt

The English Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was at the height of his fame when he travelled to the Middle East in 1854. The Scapegoat was the first major painting he made during this first stay in the Holy Land, and the idea came to him while studying the Talmud for his painting The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. During this research Hunt learnt that on the Festival of the Day of Atonement, a goat was ejected from the temple with piece of red wool on its head – in the belief that, as it ventured into the wilderness to die, it expiated the sins of the people. Hunt saw in this Old Testament tale a harbinger of Christ, who also suffered and died to redeem the sins of man.

The painting is set on the shore of the Dead Sea, at Osdoom, with the mountains of Edom rising behind – as Hunt put it 'a beautifully arranged horrible wilderness'. Hunt spent about two weeks painting in the hostile landscape (with hostile tribesmen), making sketches and taking notes. His guides persuaded him to leave early, but he took geological samples back with him – as well as leaving the goat’s portrait blank. The painting was completed the following spring, in Jerusalem.

The doomed goat, stuck fast in the sabkha, is surrounded by a range of mountains that glitter in the twilight. The lone and sorry beast in a forbidding environment recalls The Challenge (1844) by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) which also depicts a death-laden landscape imbued with loneliness and danger. Hunt’s is more clearly allegorical in intention; but might there be more to this painting than its overt religious symbolism? Scholars have tended to disregard the mountainous background, and the salt marsh, as though these were merely decorative elements. However the representation of the landforms and sediments seems too accurate – to have been seen through an eye imbued with geological understanding – to be a mere backdrop.

By the time this painting was conceived, the Biblical consensus about the Earth’s creation and antiquity had been thoroughly undermined. Charles Lyell had become the most influential exponent of the Doctrine of Uniformitarianism, the notion that the present is the key to the past, whereby modern landscape processes provide sufficient agencies for geological change, without recourse to catastrophes.

Perhaps because of the way in which the goat dominates this picture, these scenic aspects have been neglected (unlike, by contrast, the paintings of William Dyce (1806-1864) whose paintings of Pegwell Bay, for example, have drawn scholarly comment upon their scientific content). Using dazzling colours and shaded pink tones, the limestone, gypsum and chalk mountains of Edom stretch from one side of the canvas to the other and dominate the salt basin in the foreground. One of the most noticeable aspects of the mountains is their prominent stratification – and possibly terracing.

At this time, the depiction in British landscape painting of stratification in cliffs had become a common subject (for example, James Ward’s painting Gordale Scar, painted some years earlier, or William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, five years later). The scholar Charlotte Klonk in her book Science and Perception of Nature (1996) explains that the depiction of cliffs did become more common from the final years of the 18th Century on, mainly in Scottish and English painting. Contemporary science was certainly involved in this, as popular awareness of the history of the Earth was strongly influenced by the emergence of the geosciences at this time. The Scottish scientist James Hutton (1726-1797) advocated literally limitless amounts of time for the evolution of our planet, an idea strongly opposed to the Biblical ideas then current. One can trace a direct line of descent from Hutton through his populariser John Playfair (1748-1819) to Lyell and the geologists of Hunt’s generation.

However in Hunt’s painting, the story of erosion, deposition and progressive uplift does not stop at the cliffs. The hooves of the beast break up the crust of the sabkha while other, more sizeable rocks (behind the distant and half sunken carcass of a camel) seem have been brought in by water. The camel’s rib cage and the skulls of goats are undergoing slow fossilisation. This is a landscape in which the processes of erosion deposition and preservation are operating, slowly but actively changing the landscape before us.

This was not Hunt’s first foray into erosional processes in a landscape. In his watercolour The Sphinx Giza (1854) the artist displays a clear interest in the traces of passing time as manifested in the landforms. This scene speaks of its vast antiquity. The huge space, almost devoid of biology, evokes deep time and the comparative transience of life (the fossilizing bones). Geology and biology each have their cycles, operating at different rates, but entwined one in the other - biology subject to the influences of changing climate and geological evolution; living species constantly submitting to the modifications of our planet. The inter-relation of the geological and biological was highly developed in Hunt’s time, and it would reach its apotheosis in 1859 with the publication of Darwin’s Origin.

Hunt shows us the slow work of nature that carves rocks and deposits sediment – the entombing of life by progressive sedimentation, seasonal flooding, and the fathomless lengths of time over which these uniformitarian processes have operated. They are just as important as the goat itself, because their presence places a temporally and spatially “local drama” within the context of the almost infinite. This spatiality and temporality demonstrate the (then) new scientific ideas of deep time, making it possible for us to interpret this memorable picture in secular, as well as religious, terms.

*Alexis Drahos is studying for a doctorate in the history of Art at the Sorbonne, Paris.