The Historical Triumph and Social Relevance of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium

Juan Luna's Spolarium, National Museum of the Philippines (Photo Courtesy: Vicky Ras-Altaie @ mrsvickyaltaie on Instagram)

The embers of Philippine history are as colorful as the Filipinos regard for Philippine visual arts. These types of artworks depict the inner political and socio-cultural views; as well as the sentiments of a Filipino master painter, like Juan Luna. His Spoliarium was all about the bloodied bodies of gladiators, who were drawn as slaves; and dragged away from the wide and powerful arena as they attempted to fight their Roman oppressors, with their own precious and God given lives. In addition, these slaves on this world-renowned painting of Juan Luna were physically stripped of their clothing in order to gratify the lewd and devilish contempt of those Roman oppressors. Thus, this had excellently embodied the essence of the political, moral and social lives of the Filipino, based on the critical analysis of Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines; and a contemporary of Luna. According to the author of Noli Me Tangere, the masterpiece of Juan Luna centered on the severe ordeal of the Filipino nation, in which its encompassing human nature, had never been regained.

Juan Luna's Spolarium, National Museum of the Philippines (Photo Courtesy: Vicky Ras-Altaie @ mrsvickyaltaie on Instagram)

Juan Luna's Spolarium, National Museum of the Philippines (Photo Courtesy: Vicky Ras-Altaie @ mrsvickyaltaie on Instagram)

Also, his Spoliarium had provided a distinctive picture and persona of an open struggle against reason and idealism, which were coupled with justice, fanaticism and cases of prejudice. Historically, the Spoliarium was a remarkable painting which was submitted by the young and genius Juan Luna at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes, in the capital city of Spain in 1884. Due to its tremendous interpretations of the sociological situations in the Philippines, the said masterpiece had bagged the first three gold medals out of the numerous and much coveted citations for painting excellence.  Conversely, the Spoliarium of Juan Luna was sold for 20,000 pesetas to Diputaciom Provincial de Barcelona. Hence, the said genial craftsmanship of Luna can be found at the National Museum in the Philippines. “Would you believe?”  If anyone of you will visit the said national depository of the Filipino nation, this masterpiece of his would be the first thing that visitors and spectators alike, would ever see. Wonderful and impressive, isn’t it?

The Making of Spoliarium

Based on historical accounts, the young and brilliant Juan Luna had spent almost eight months of his fruitful life, to finally finish the historically significant Spoliarium.  Thus, to make it a world-class work of art, it was painted on a very large canvass with utmost love, care and beyond compare perfection.  To prove this astonishing impression by the author of this article, a famous Filipino historian by the name of Ambeth Ocampo had once said, “The fact that remains that when Juan Luna and Felix R. Hidalgo won the top awards in the Madrid Exposition of 1884, they had proved to the world that indios can, despite their supposed barbarian race, paint better than the Spaniards who colonized them.”

The Significant Influence of Spoliarium in Rizal’s Nationalistic Ideals

Of course, even if Rizal was a genius in a very subtle way, the greatest influence of Spoliarium can never be denied nor eradicated, from his conscious and critical views of the socio-political realities in the Philippines. In line with this, he had proudly lauded this momentous achievement of Juan Luna alongside with Felix Hidalgo, during an exclusive gathering of expatriates which were incidentally, all Filipinos. With this magnificent painting, Rizal was happy to know that at long last, there were Filipino artists who had bluntly fought the tyrannical regime of the Spaniards through a simple; but, meaningful work of art.

Juan Luna Statue (Photo Courtesy: Elaine Lopez @chobewy on Instagram)

Juan Luna Statue (Photo Courtesy: Elaine Lopez @chobewy on Instagram)

How Did Juan Luna Perceive His Well-Deserved Recognition for Spoliarium?

The National Commission on Culture and the Arts had said on their article and critical analysis about “The Spoliarium”, Juan Luna never claimed that this masterpiece of his was not just a glorious achievement. Instead, it was more of a patriotic duty. In support of this very wittingly thought of statement, he became an active member of the band of Filipino intellectuals in Europe, which was generously and solely dedicated to the undying principles of Filipino nationalism, during the early months of the 1880’s and 1890’s. Among the brainchild of this organization were Rizal, del Pilar and Graciano Lopez Jaena.  On the contrary, even if he had sweetly and painstakingly labored in the Salons of Europe, it was ultimately for the reason of proving that the Filipinos or indios were capable of being intellectually competitive, as other foreigners could also be. In addition, his contemporary nationalists had grown out to be more than what are expected of them. Above all, his Spoliarium was his own magnificent view of nationalism. In a more explicit interpretation, the Spoliarium was Juan Luna himself; and his colorful ways of putting into a canvass the real essence of nationalism with burning blazes of pride and self- respect.

Spolarium at the National Museum of the Philippines (Photo Courtesy: Martie Rosales @marteerosales on Instagram)

Spolarium at the National Museum of the Philippines (Photo Courtesy: Martie Rosales @marteerosales on Instagram)

Why Was the Spoliarium the Best Work of Juan Luna?

Spoliarium was the best masterpiece of Juan Luna, because it had perfectly exemplified what it takes to be a world- renowned painter at a very young age of 24. Best of all, his artwork was able to surpass beyond expectations the works of both the Spanish and Italian painting masters during his time. While in Rome, he was able to integrate, the classical masterpieces of Michelangelo and Rafael to make the Spoliarium as glaringly excellent as the freedom of his fellow Filipinos. Imagine this. He had explored successfully the historical beauty and significance of his creativity, on a large canvass which had measurements of 4×7 meters. Without expecting much from this piece of historical interest, it had become an immediate and overnight sensation for the Filipino people in those times of political uncertainties. The major reasons behind these unforgettable adulations for Juan Luna can be clearly divided into two major things: First, it had unquestionably bagged the first three Gold Medals in the said global and prestigious competition. Second, it had gained international prominence among newspaper columns in Madrid, Barcelona and Paris.

What Did They Say about the Spoliarium?

To those people who had nothing more to say about Juan Luna on a personal level, they had cited his Spoliarum’s unforgettable rendezvous with colors and canvass as:

  • It was more than a painting; it is a book and a poem at the same time
  • It had showed that Luna was more than just a painter, he was a legendary thinker.
  • It was not just  mere mechanism of a genius
  • The said artwork was able to reflect the other unique personalities of Juan Luna- a prolific artist with  so much ambitions in  life
  • Spoliarium is an art giant which  can be likened to Hercules, of Greek Mythology, who has a kind of  strength that is truly  beyond compare

Indeed, the Spoliarium of Juan Luna gave him the chance to tell the whole world that painting is not a mere art of mixing and integrating different colors; to make a masterpiece livelier and more historically relevant. . But it is an expression of one’s idea of liberty, self-respect and his or her dynamic views about the varying social ills of a nation like the freedom loving Philippines had gone through the years. After going through this article, “Would you want to become another Juan Luna in the near future?”


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