I’ve been waiting for “S” for some time now – because there’s a masterpiece I can’t wait to share with everyone. It’s one that not a lot of people know about, nor even realize was painted by a Filipino.
Juan Luna’s Spoliarium was the life-sized painting he submitted during the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884 held in Madrid. It won the first of three gold medals and garnered him more commissions by the Spanish government.
Four injured and dying gladiators who entertained their oppressors in the arena with their lives are being dragged in by Roman soldiers in the dark and dingy crematory. Cheering spectators and greedy faces below eagerly await to strip off the fallen combatants of their armor. The barbarism sharply contrasts with the humanity of a woman sprawled on the floor as an old man with a torch locates a son.
Often misspelled as “Spolarium,” spoliarium is Latin for the basement of the Roman Coliseum where dead and dying gladiators were dumped and deprived of worldly possessions. It was what we refer to now as a morgue.
“The Spoliarium” is not a mural as it is not painted on a wall. It is also not a canvas. It was painted on poplar, a polished wood that is typically straight, with uniform grain and a medium texture. Its low natural luster makes it suitable for painting.
Newspapers would rave about the painting and Luna thus:
“The largest work, the most frightful, the most discussed work of the Exposition.”
“It is more than a painting, it is a book, a poem.”
“It is something more than the mere mechanism of genius, of the art composition…Luna is a thinker.
“A giant of art, a kind of Hercules, that enters furiously leveling down all the gods with blows from his club, bringing in a new art, full of ideas and forms, carrying a Spartan soul and the brush of Michelangelo. More than sixty years did Michaelangelo study! How many years did Luna study? Six! Let us wait.”
Another Filipino, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, won top honors during that Exposition, and together, they were able to prove to the world that despite what the first world considered as their barbarian race, indios could paint better than their colonizers. Luna’s achievement would also set the mind of Jose Rizal at work, and get the wheels in motion for the novel, Noli Me Tangere.
After winning the gold medal at the Madrid Exposition of Fine Arts, the life-sized painting was purchased by the provincial government of Barcelona in 1887 and later moved to the Museum of Modern Art. There it remained in storage for years till the museum was burned and looted during the Spanish civil war in 1937.
The damaged painting was then sent to Madrid for restoration, and for 18 years, it stayed there till the 1950’s when it was sent to Manila as a gift from the Spanish government to the independent government of the Philippines.
Spoliarium would be cut into three pieces by careless packers, and later, inexpertly restored. Spanish-trained art restorers were later sent to do whatever they could to restore the painting but could not erase the damage wrought by the cutting of the painting into three pieces.
Filipino artist Antonio Dumlao would later restore the masterpiece to what it looks now, greeting one as they enter the Hall of the Masters at the National Museum of the Philippines.