Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (Agnus-Dei. Le bouc émissaire) by James Tissot

James Tissot

Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (Agnus-Dei. Le bouc émissaire), 1886–94, Opaque watercolour over graphite on grey wove paper, 256 x 171 mm, Brooklyn Museum; Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.265, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, USA / Bridgeman Images

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A Painful Transference

Commentary by

Unlike William Holman Hunt’s more famous painting of the forlorn scapegoat, his contemporary, James Tissot, painted Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (1886–94) as a scene of high drama. Starting with Leviticus 16’s description of the scapegoat upon whose head the sins of the community are transferred, Tissot focusses on the dynamism of this living sacrifice. We see a populated, animated landscape showing the moment when the scapegoat is driven into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:21–22), enhancing the scene with a descriptive realism that is not there in the text.

Tissot was a French impressionist painter whose turn to realism was accompanied by a turn to biblical subjects. Visiting the Holy Land in 1886–87 and 1889, he made careful studies which contributed to a series of 365 watercolours illustrating the life of Christ, now in the Brooklyn Museum.

Undoubtedly, we are meant to feel the physicality of place in this scene: the aridity of the land and the hurtling rocks plunging vertically downward honour the Levitical law’s first context. But we also seem encouraged by the work to feel an intertextual resonance with the New Testament, and John 1:29’s ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’. Indeed, Tissot’s figure and his pinched face is the Jesus of his earlier paintings, not only carrying a lamb, but also propelled forward in front of the scarlet-threaded head of the fleeing goat.

Neither the reconciling blood of the animals sacrificed back in the camp’s sanctuary, nor the priestly communion in the Most Holy Place of that same sanctuary, are present in the composition. In this Christian typological transformation of the ritual, Tissot is making sure we see the singularity of Jesus’s atoning figure alone.

The ‘Lamb of God’ here is rendered without ambiguity. There is instead an uncomplicated affirmation of the sacrificial efficacy of God’s actions in Jesus. The Hebrew text, by contrast, pointedly includes Aaron (Leviticus 16:1, after the death of his two sons in 10:1–2). Might this suggest a more painful transference—less a moment in which past sin is neatly jettisoned than a ritual before God in which humanity faces and wrestles with itself?

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