As a companion article to U’s on Raden Saleh and, like hers, written in honour of the upcoming opening, this week, of the National Gallery Singapore’s latest exhibition, Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna, I am happy to present one of Filipino artist Juan Luna’s most famous works, Spoliarium.

The painting, which hangs in the National Museum of the Philippines, is a massive work, measuring 4+ metres tall and 7+ metres wide and is revered as a national treasure for reasons which will become clear as you read on. But first, let’s take a look at an image of the painting in question so we all know what we’re talking about here, shall we?

Juan Luna, Spoliarium, 1884. Image credit: Marco Collado

The oil painting, which was created a little over twenty-five years after Raden Saleh’s The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro, in 1884, depicts two fallen gladiators being dragged into the Spoliarium, a holding area in the Roman Colosseum where corpses of fallen gladiators were brought, to be stripped of their armour and weapons before their corpses were disposed of.

In a study in contrasts, applying dramatic chiaroscuro effects (an interplay of light and shadow), Luna illuminates the central figures as well as the left side of the painting, where excited spectators eye the corpses avidly and without any sign of sorrow or repulsion. Romans believed that the blood of a dead gladiator had healing properties and could give greater sexual vigour. Perhaps that is the reason for the apparent eagerness and excitement in their expressions. In contrast to the charged emotions on the left, the figures in the darkened shadowy area on the right present a sombre mood. An old man holds up a lamp or torch, perhaps searching for his son, while a woman weeps in mourning over a dead body.

The visual rhetoric of the Romantics appealed to Luna’s passionate nature, engaging the emotions in a compelling way with dramatic themes, vigorous brushstrokes, and heroic proportions. He applied these techniques to great effect in Spoliarium,  which won him the First of three Gold Medals awarded at the prestigious Exposicion de Bellas Artes (Madrid Art Exposition) in May 1884.

Filipino national hero and freedom-fighter Jose Rizal (centre) with Juan Luna (left) and Rizal’s close friend and fellow revolutionary, Valentin Ventura (right)

To the delight of the Filipino community in Madrid as well as those at home, Luna’s compatriot, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo also took a prize at the Madrid Exposition, winning a silver medal for his entry, Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace.

Luna was an active member of that band of Filipino intellectuals in Europe dedicated to the principles of nationalism in the 1880s and 90s. Among its leading lights was the Filipino nationalist hero Jose Rizal. To the Filipinos, Luna’s and Hidalgo’s wins proved that the Filipino, or Indio, as his Spanish colonial masters called him, was as intellectually capable as any Spaniard and could stand proudly as his equal.

“For me, if there is something grand, something sublime, in the Spoliarium, it is because behind the canvas, behind the painted figures . . . there floats the living image of the Filipino people sighing its misfortune. Because. . . the Philippines is nothing more than a real Spoliarium with all its horrors.”

Graciano López Jaena

Spoliarium was the kind of painting that lent itself to the patriotic needs of the Filipinos and on which Rizal and others projected a nationalistic symbolism that helped rouse the Filipinos to rise up against the political oppression of their Spanish colonizers. In Rizal’s words, Spoliarium was a symbol of “our social, moral, and political life: humanity unredeemed, reason and aspiration in open fight with prejudice, fanaticism, and injustice.”