05 April 2014

Art for Lent (32): ‘The Death of Socrates’
(1787), by Jacques-Louis David

The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

Patrick Comerford

For my work of Art for Lent this morning [5 April 2014], I have chosen ‘The Death of Socrates’ (La Mort de Socrate) by the French painter Jacques-Louis David. This is one of the paintings used last week by Professor John Dillon to illustrate his lecture in Trinity College Dublin on ‘Seamus Heaney and the Heritage of Greece,’ a lecture organised by the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies at Athens and the Irish Hellenic Society.

This painting in oil on canvas was painted in 1787. It measures 129.5 cm × 196.2 cm (51.0 in × 77.2 in) and is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was an influential French painter in the neo-classical style, and he is considered to be the pre-eminent painter of the era. In the 1780s his cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from rococo frivolity towards a classical austerity and severity.

He was working on this painting in the final years of the Ancien Régime, and later became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794).

He became effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. He was jailed after Robespierre’s fall from power, and after his release aligned himself with Napoleon. He then developed his Empire style, notable for its use of warm Venetian colours. After Napoleon’s fall and the Bourbon revival, David went into exiled in Brussels, then in the Netherlands, where he lived until his death.

From the 1780s, many of David’s works focus on classical subjects. This painting was completed in Paris in 1787.

In this painting, the artist retells the story of the execution of Socrates, which is told by Plato in his Phaedo.

Socrates was put on trial in the year 399 BC, charged with corrupting the youth and with impiety. The primary sources for his trial are provided by his friends Plato and Xenophon. His accusers cited two impious acts: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.”

These two charges arose from Socrates asking philosophical questions. Citizens of Athens were chosen by lot to serve as jurors, and a majority voted to convict him. They took another vote to decide on his punishment and Socrates was to death by drinking a hemlock. Instead of fleeing when he has the opportunity, Socrates, uses his death as a final lesson for his pupils, and faces the end calmly.

In this painting, Socrates is an old man in a white robe who sits upright on a bed, one hand extended over a cup, the other gesturing in the air. He is surrounded by other men of varying ages, most showing emotional distress, unlike the stoic old man.

Socrates is being handed the cup by a young man who looks the other way, with his face in his free hand.

Another young man clutches the thigh of the old man.

An elderly man sits at the end of the bed, slumped over and looking in his lap.

To the left of the painting, the wall becomes an arch, with more men in the background.

While he was working on this painting, David consulted Father Adry, a priest who was also an expert on the subject of the death of Socrates.

However, David’s depiction of Socrates death contains many historical inaccuracies. For simplicity, he removed many characters, including the wife of Socrates. On the other hand, he included Apollodorus, the man leaning against the wall just within the arch. But Apollodorus was sent away by Socrates for showing too much grief.

David also misrepresented the ages of many of the pupils of Socrates, including Plato. Plato would have been a young man at the time of the death of Socrates. But in this painting he is the old man sitting at the foot of the bed.

Even David’s face of Socrates is much more idealised than the classical bust that is typically used as a reference portrait of Socrates.

David uses colour to highlight the emotion in this painting. The shades of red are more muted on the edges of the painting and become more vibrant in the centre, culminating in the dark red robe of the man holding the cup of poison.

The only two serene men, Socrates and Plato, are garbed in a contrasting blue/white.

The more muted colour scheme of this painting may be a response to critics of another painting by David, ‘Oath of the Horatii,’ who said his colours there were “garish.”

David signed this painting in two places – his full signature is under Crito, the young man clutching Socrates’s thigh, and his initials are under Plato. There was often a symbolic meaning to where David placed his signature. For example, in his painting of Count Potocki, David signed in the collar of a dog that is barking at the sitter.

In ‘The Death of Socrates,’ his signatures also have meaning. His initials under Plato are a reference to the fact that the story comes from Plato. His fuller signature under Crito means that this is the character the artist identifies with most.

In this painting, David examines a philosopher’s approach to death. Socrates is stoic and calm because he sees death as a separate, actual realm, a different state of being from life but not an end to being.

In Phaedo, Socrates seems to be more concerned with how Crito will handle his death than with his own wellbeing. In the painting, the gesture of Socrates indicates he is still teaching, even in the moment before his death.

Some reflections and questions:

The only words Christ is recorded as writing are words in the sand when a woman is about to be stoned to death. When he was asked why he did not commit his words to writing, Socrates replied: “I would rather write on the hearts of living men than on the skins of dead sheep.”

Like Christ, Socrates left behind no great writings. We know of Christ’s words from the Gospels and the other writings in the New Testament, we know of Socrates’ thoughts through Plato’s works.

Many writers have compared Socrates with Christ, and some of the early Church Fathers even considered Socrates a pre-Christian saint or something of a prophet. Yet Tertullian asked: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church?” (De praescriptione, vii).

Do Christ and Socrates share any ethical precepts? Or are those similarities shared by all great teachers of the past?

Is there a similarity between the way Christ and Socrates sought out the common people to teach them?

Christ and Socrates were both accused of “corrupting society” and were put on trial. Do Socrates and Christ pose similar challenges to the prevailing religiosity and idolatries of the age?

Can you find similarities between the two in Socrates’ claims to be just a humble person trying to figure things out?

In Plato’s Crito, Crito visits Socrates on the night before his death, he questions why Socrates is content with remaining in prison and he offers him an escape route that would allow Socrates and his followers to leave the country and live in exile. Does Crito offer to Socrates a role similar to the one Judas offers to Christ?

Can we draw parallels between the dialogue between Socrates Meletus (the judge at the trial, and the dialogue between Christ and Pilate?

Is there a similarity or a difference between the way Socrates is willing to accept his trial and sentencing, and the way Christ faces his trial and crucifixion?

Tomorrow:The Raising of Lazarus’ (ca 1510-1518), by Juan de Flandes

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