|Juan Luna, circa 1884|
|oil on poplar|
|400 × 700 cm|
|National Museum of the Philippines|
Spoliarium is the oil-on-canvas masterpiece that first earned a gold medal for Juan Luna in the prestigious Exposicion Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Exhibition of Fine Arts) of 1884 in Madrid, Spain. The origin of the name is the Latin spolia opima that is literally rich spoils, which are the arms taken by the victorious from the vanquished general, as entered in the Merriam Webster Dictionary. Luna's signature work attempted to depict the horrors and pathos of the Spoliarium as it showed dead gladiators being dragged while some onlookers stood by eagerly waiting for the spoils; others looked on in horror while just across the chamber sat a woman, despondent and slumped on the floor and a man held a torch, presumably searching for the body of his kin. There was such a chamber or building called Spoliarium in the ancient Roman Colosseum complex at the heart of Rome.
The Spoliarium measures four meters in height and seven meters in width. The canvas depicts a chamber beneath a Roman arena, where bodies of dead gladiators are being dragged into a shadowy area, presumably to be put in a bigger pile of dead bodies.
In this emotional work, the contrast between the eager audience on the left side of the painting and the mourners on the right creates tension and drama. The cruelty to the victims is thought to symbolize the Spaniards' treatment of the Filipinos at that time.
Juan Luna was a 26-year-old patriot, a former sailor, a painter and government pensioner (by the Ayuntamiento). He had been tutored by Ermita's famed Lorenzo Guerrero, trained at Academia de Dibujo y Pintura (Academy of Fine Arts) in Manila and at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) in Madrid, Spain, where he met Don Alejo Vera, who took him to Rome for some painting commissions. Luna's exposure to the art of the Renaissance masters inspired him to start working on Spoliarium. After eight months, the most valuable painting by Luna and the largest extant painting in the Philippines, measuring 4.22 meters x 7.675 meters, was born.
Spoliarium bested Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho, the work of another compatriot, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, who won the silver medal. This victory earned for Luna a reputation as a painter of the first-order. Accolades were accorded him in Europe. Rave reviews of his work were in the news. The art world was united in their opinion that Luna should have received the "Prize of Honor" award, whose previous recipient in 1878 was Francisco Padilla, a great Spanish historical painter. Spoliarium brought more commissions to Luna, more wealth, for it was bought a year later by the Provincial Government of Barcelona for 20,000 pesetas but more than that, it showed artistic genius thereby disproving racist contentions that Filipinos were no good at anything.
The Filipinos in Madrid toasted the double victory of Luna and Hidalgo. In Jose Rizal's speech at the fete, he interpreted the Spoliarium as the symbol of the degraded social, moral and political life of the Filipinos.
For Graciano Lopez-Jaena, Spoliarium is a metaphor, "the living image of the Filipino people sighing its misfortune...the Philippines is nothing more than a real Spoliarium with all its horrors."
Where to View Spoliarium
Spoliarium is on exhibit at the National Museum of the Philippines in its Hall of Masters at the National Art Gallery and the Museum of the Filipino People Building. A handbook by the Arts Division of the museum features the best artwork of 19th century master Juan Luna, Spoliarium, which is among the fifteen chosen representative samples of best artworks of artists from 18th century onwards.
To view Spoliarium and other notable works of art, contact the Museum Education Division at 527-0278 for booking. Visitors four years old and above may tour the museum at Padre Burgos Drive, Manila. For a digital glimpse of Spoliarium, you may take a virtual tour of the Hall of Masters at the National Museum website. .
In Popular Culture
- Filipino alternative rock group The Eraserheads' album Sticker Happy contained a track named Spoliarium.
- Ryan Cayabyab composed the opera Spoliarium, which chronicles the creation of the eponymous painting and Juan Luna's trial for the murder of his wife. Soprano Fides Cuyugan-Asensio wrote the libretto. A recorded version was released for commercial distribution in 2006.
- Torres, Eric The Art of Juan Luna, National Commission for Culture and the Arts (Accessed 16 December 2012)
-  National Museum Website Visiting Information FAQs (Accessed 16 December 2012)
- Cruz-Araneta, Gemma Reading Luna, Landscape, Manila Bulletin, 25 October 2011 (Accessed 16 December 2012)
-  National Museum Website Collections, Visual Art Collections (Accessed 16 December 2012)
-  National Museum Collections (Accessed 16 December 2012)
-  National Art Gallery National Museum of the Philippines, Exhibits (Accessed 16 December 2012)