When this painting was first exhibited in 1856 at the Royal Academy the response was mixed. Viewers appreciated the vivid and detailed depiction of the area of “Oosdoom” (Kharbet Usdum) by the Dead Sea—an inaccessible and inhospitable place of which no photographs yet existed—and the courage and endurance of the artist in exposing himself to multiple hazards there in order to paint the work ‘from life’.
There was much less appreciation of the typological symbolism employed. This was set out in very full programme notes presenting the Azazel (scapegoat) of the Day of Atonement ritual in Leviticus 16 as a type of Christ, with the text on the frame clearly linking the two figures via the ‘suffering servant’ of Isaiah 53.
Hunt’s goat, like Isaiah’s suffering servant, is full of pathos, cut off from the land of the living, spent, and near to death, thus evoking a Christ who ‘was despised and rejected’. He bears away the people’s sins signified by his scarlet headband (Isaiah 1:18), a symbol Hunt would apply directly to the figure of Christ in a later painting, The Shadow of Death. The outcome is atonement and new life, hinted at by the olive branch in the left foreground.
Yet neither public nor critics found the symbolism persuasive, and Hunt himself reflected in hindsight, ‘I had over-counted on the picture’s intelligibility’ (Hunt 1905: 108; Bronkhust 2006). It was certainly unprecedented in its iconography. More importantly, the New Testament does not exploit this Christological type, and the history of textual commentators attempting to do so has been fraught with theological problems (Lyonnet & Sabourin 1970).
Recent biblical scholarship has instead begun to explore the way Christ and the scapegoat figure appear as a pair in the Gospel narratives. In this vein, some have noted connections between the scapegoat and Barabbas evident in Matthew 27:16ff (Moscicke 2018). Others (e.g. Anstis: 2012) have pursued a more intriguing possibility offered by the events earlier in that chapter where Judas, doomed to carry blame throughout history, is dismissed from the Temple to face his demons alone in the social wilderness.
Anstis, Debra. (2012). ‘Sacred Men and Sacred Goats: Mimetic Theory in Levitical and Passion Intertext’, in Violence, Desire and the Sacred: Girard’s Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines, vol. 1, ed. by Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming & Joel Hodge (New York: Continuum), pp. 50–65
Bronkhurst, Judith. (2006). William Holman Hunt: A catalogue raisonné (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press)
Hunt, William Holman. (1905). Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan & Co.)
Lyonnet, Stanislas and Leopold Sabourin. (1970). Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study, Analecta Biblica 48 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Commission)
Moscicke, Hans. (2018). ‘Jesus as Goat of the Day of Atonement in Recent Synoptic Gospels Research’, Currents in Biblical Research 17.1: 59–85
27 When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death; 2and they bound him and led him away and delivered him to Pilate the governor.
3 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, 4saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. 6But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” 7So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. 8Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, 10and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”