The Spoliarium at the National Museum
The Spoliarium, Juan Luna’s magnum opus, won the gold medal during the 1884 Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes (Exposition of Fine Arts) in Madrid. It depicts a typical scene in a chamber of a Roman arena: men dragging defeated gladiators, onlookers watching the bloody spectacle, and a woman grieving on one side. Perhaps Mr. Luna saw the striking parallel between the plight of these lifeless gladiators and those of the oppressed Filipinos during his time. It is said that Jose P. Rizal, still a student back then, understood very well the message conveyed in the painting. In one post-celebration of Luna’s and Felix Ressurreccion Hidalgo’s double victory (Hidalgo won the 9th silver medal for his “Las Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas Al Populacho”), Rizal boldly declared the end of the colonial patriarchy. We know now what Rizal did a few years later: published two controversial novels, founded a civic organization, and returned to the Philippines afterwards. He was later executed in December 30, 1986.
The 400 cm x 700 cm painting is now among the many attractions inside the National Gallery of Art of the National Museum. It was donated by President Francisco Franco in 1954 during President Elpidio Quirino’s state visit to Spain. It is not true that the Spanish language was included in the Philippine college curriculum in exchange for the Spanish president’s kind gesture. The painting was cut vertically in two sections before it was rolled up and then transported by ship to Manila. It has since occupied an entire wall of the National Museum’s main gallery where one can view the works of Ang Kiukok, Vicente Manansala, Jose Joya, and other National Artists as well.
I was fortunate to finally see the Spoliarium, thanks to a college friend who made an itinerary that almost shied away from the usual shopping malls. Before leaving the museum, I stood in the middle of the main hall for a few minutes to see the painting in its entirety. At the back of my mind, I knew that this could be my last opportunity to visit the structure that can also be found at the back of the Php 50.00 bill.
Cameras are not allowed inside the museum but the exception is granted to those who are part of Mr. John Silva’s tour. This is also with the condition that no flash is used. We noticed two ladies with Nikon DSLR cameras in the hall at that time. They were part of the museum tour during that day. I summoned all the courage in the world to approach these two strangers and then audaciously requested that they take a photo of us with the painting. They probably understood my weird yet very important request. It is like being trapped in an elevator with Angelina Jolie and by the most unfortunate circumstance, you do not have any civilized means of preserving that memory (a pen and paper for an autograph or even your VGA camera phone for a very pixelated photo) for your future grandchildren. I gave one of them my email address and a few days later, she sent me a copy of our photos. How we got our Spoliarium photo can now be safely told.
I remember that my Grade 2 history teacher asked some of us in class to re-enact the Spoliarium in front of our classmates. The reason perhaps was to magnify the black and white photo in our textbook. I was given the part of the guy in the middle, wearing red and raising his left arm. I would say now that despite the noble intention, our best attempt in recreating the painting could not capture the beauty and the depth of Luna’s masterpiece. And despite the fact that the photograph above is now on our Facebook pages, the Spoliarium is best experienced rather than photographed.
When you get the chance to be in Manila, you may want to include the National Museum (instead of the Mall of Asia) in your future itineraries. For just a few hundred pesos, you would be treated to a unique visual feast and perhaps in the process, realize how rich the Filipino culture has always been.
I must thank Ms. M. Rosales for taking our picture, Mr. John Silva for answering the questions in my email and Mr. LM Plaza for dragging me to see the National Museum. This post would not have been possible without their contributions.
The National Art Gallery of the National Museum is located at P. Burgos corner Finance Roadin Manila, Philippines. March tour dates are shown here. For future schedules and other queries, please contact Mr. John Silva through his blog or his email.