Monday, 3 August 2015

Juan Luna's Spoliarium: A Painting of a Revolution

All Filipino students know about this painting since grade school, and its details might have been part of a daily quiz or a final exam, and I couldn't remember if I spelled it right then. Ha-ha-ha!

Spoliarium (take note of the two i's) is the most famous work of art of Juan Luna. It was said that when he visited Rome, Italy, he was exposed to the Renaissance painters and got to visit the Colloseum, where he saw for himself the spoliarium, a dark place under the Colloseum where dead gladiators were dumped. And maybe that was where he got the inspiration to tell the story of the struggle of a people, liking it to the inhuman disregard of gladiators' corpses just because the Romans had no use for them anymore as dead gladiators could no longer entertain. Remember what Russell Crowe shouted to the crowd in his movie 'Gladiator'?  He shouted, "Are you not entertained?!"
 at the painting's lower right corner)
          (Characters in the painting seem 
             to be arguing who gets the 
           possessions left on the corpses)

The Spoliarium's dimensions are 4.22 meters by 7.675 meters. It's 13.8 feet tall and 25.18 feet wide; it's not your ordinary art exhibit painting. Juan Luna's main purpose was to make sure everyone got his message. I figured if he wanted to get his message across, the painting had to be massive. And his message? Somewhere out there was a race of people being used to entertain and satisfy those in authority, and being inhumanly trashed away after they became useless.

      (Dead gladiators being dragged away)

One doesn't have to be an art expert in order to understand the Spoliarium. Seeing it in person for the first time, I was intimidated by its size and its colors, and the scene is really thought-provoking with a lot of characters comprising the whole tableau. This painting is a significant part of Philippine history, and I only used to read about it in history books as a kid.

                (A useless gladiator being dragged)

Darkness and shadows dominate the painting; it's a cruel scene of carnage and inhumanity. During the Roman times, gladiators were merely slaves, whose lives they didn't actually own. They were in the arena to serve and entertain, and if they survived the bloody combat, they were rewarded with freedom, even if at the cost of a limb, an eye, or a pool of blood.

Yes, freedom was very costly for gladiators in the Roman times. Fast forward a few millennia, during the Spanish colonization, freedom in the Philippine archipelago was just as costly.  And when Juan Luna won the gold medal for this painting at the Exposicion Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Spain, in 1884, it was more than just a personal triumph. It just didn't prove Juan Luna's mastery of the art; according to Professor Ambeth Ocampo, it was a triumph for the colonized indios (the Spaniards' label for Filipinos) who were proven to be better than their colonizers, the Spaniards. (Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, another Filipino, won the silver medal in the same competition for his painting Las Virgines Cristianas expuestas al Populacho).

At that time, during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, it would have been easier to understand the painful colors of the painting and the enormity of the masterpiece. But this day, in a different time, one can only stand in front of the Spoliarium in awe and reverence for this priceless part of Philippine history, a painting of the revolution. 

      (A grieving woman, sitting on the bloody ground  as a sign of hopelessness and absolute resignation. Who could this figure be?)

                            *  *  *  *  *

And while visiting the most treasured painting at the National Museum was a trip back to a period in Philippine history, writing this piece about the Spoliarium was even more fun. It's just too bad the painter is no longer around to explain to us all the characters, including those painted in the dark, and the colors of his masterpiece. 

Thanks to my friend Fay for the treat at the Museum, and even more thankful to Juan Luna, who gave us a work of art to talk and write about 131 years after he signed off on it.

          (Characters resembling vultures preying 
            on the dead. Who do they represent?)
   (Up close and immortal: He fought for his freedom and he's now immortalized)

If you have the chance, do visit the Spoliarium at the National Museum of the Philippines at Padre Burgos Drive in Manila.

          (Standing in awe and reverence 
             in front of the  Spoliarium)

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