David’s The Death of Socrates

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Having pretended to read my way through philosophy textbooks in my college years, I welcomed Jacques-Louis David’s masterpiece, The Death of Socrates, like an old familiar, when I finally had the chance to visit its old haunt at the Met in New York. The well-remembered scene drew my attention, but I wasn’t prepared for its arresting colors, especially the deadly red of the disciple with the cup of hemlock, and the vivid white of an unexpectedly virile Socrates in mid-argument. (I always thought the gadfly of Athens looked the part, Steve Buscemi-like.) And the way the condemned man’s garments are draped over his left arm and around his waist: Doesn’t that remind us of another familiar image, the resurrected Christ? David’s allusion startled me, and then I counted the number of disciples present in the scene, Plato included. Exactly 12.

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