Spoliarium by Juan Luna

For more than 300 years, the Philippines, located in SouthEast Asia, was once colonized under Spanish rule. During its colonization, Filipinos endured centuries of struggles and hardships as an “inferior” class, as well as erasure of the Filipino identity. Therefore, it was quite an accomplishment that a Filipino artist in Madrid, Spain won a gold medal during the National Exhibition of Fine Arts. 

Juan Luna's painting Spoliarium

During the National Exhibition in May of 1884, Juan Luna presented his oil painting titled Spoliarium to the public eye. The painting was described as “the largest work, the most frightful, and the most discussed work at the Exposition.” The painting is measured at 7.7 meters wide by 4.2 meters tall and it depicts a spoliarium, which is the basement of a Roman amphitheater. However, did you know that this painting inspired the Philippine Revolution? 

After the news of Luna’s win, there were gatherings held at local cafés. Some of the attendees were Jose Rizal and Graciano López Jaena who are popular Filipino propagandists. Praises and speeches were made in regards to Luna’s win, as well as what his win stood for. López Jaena states,

“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!”

The painting illustrates a dark imagery of what happens inside the confines of a Spoliarium. Luna created a scene that invokes a sense of dread by mastering the application of the “dramatic chiaroscuro effect,” which is an interplay of light and shadow. The left and right sides of the painting are dark and foreboding. On the left, people are leering into the basement with greedy eyes, scavenging the dead for valuables like vultures circling a carcass. On the right, grief is displayed as a father desperately searches for his son—and a mother sits beside her son’s lifeless body. However, despite the powerful imagery on either end of the painting, Luna demands attention to the center of the painting by highlighting the gladiator’s uniform and the blood of bodies being dragged in a bright crimson red. 

Spoliarium detail lightened

The painting shows the suffering of not only the gladiators who risked their lives, but also the suffering of their loved ones. The deaths and suffering of the gladiators were viewed as “senseless” and “avoidable” since this is mere entertainment for the Roman Empire. Luna is making a parallelism of Rome’s violent imperialism to Spain’s violent colonization towards his people. This painting presents the truth behind the cruelty and bloodshed of Spanish colonization over Filipinos. 

Due to the strong statement made by the painting itself, the Spanish imperial viewed Luna’s painting as an anti-colonial artwork. Propagandists like Jose Rizal used this opportunity to voice out the injustices and declared that Filipinos deserve equal rights with their colonizers, and because of this, he was declared as a rebel by the Spanish authorities, which led to his imprisonment and death in December 1896. 

The painting currently resides at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Manila, Philippines, and can be viewed by the public as a reminder of the sacrifices that were made in order for Filipinos to gain freedom, independence, and equality.

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