ALL THE positive comments regarding the National Museum lately have proven one noisy critic wrong. Over a year ago, he claimed irreparable damage to Luna’s “Spoliarium” after a decision was made to move it a few meters; and he complained about the renovation of the former Senate Session Hall, which has now been completed and is one of Manila’s truly grand spaces. There was the issue of bringing all the Fernando Amorsolo drawings and Juan Luna paintings from storage and displaying them in once-empty halls. Now people say the museum is worth a visit because there is a lot to see. Visitors can now take photos for personal use as souvenirs. Previously, guards would pounce on students taking pictures even of the outside of the building. I intervened once and asked why a student wasn’t allowed to photograph the lengthy text of the historical marker at the entrance instead of copying it out by hand for her assignment.
We hope other museums follow suit because everyone has a cell phone camera today; by making their collections more accessible to the public they fulfill their educational mandate. In other museums around the world, flash photography is not allowed. We all know that sunlight and other forms of light damage paintings, but how long will it take for continuous flashing, 24/7, to fade a painting?
On my next visit to the National Museum I want to read history from the Senate Session Hall, I want to see what new thoughts can be generated by Luna’s “Spoliarium” now complemented by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s equally powerful “The Assassination of Governor Bustamante.” So controversial was this massive canvas that it was not publicly exhibited in the painter’s lifetime. It did not help that the original title of the painting was “La Iglesia contra el estado” (The Church against the state), which seems relevant these days in the debate over the reproductive health (RH) bill. Alas, the “Spoliarium” gets all the attention because of the sheer size of the painting, the gory subject and the notoriety of the painter who murdered his wife and mother-in-law in Paris in 1892. “Spoliarium” is a powerful painting, but its scene of ancient Rome seems distant to us, unlike the 18th-century scene of friars murdering the Spanish governor-general which was masterfully depicted by Hidalgo in “Iglesia contra el estado.” This work of art was only seen by the public twice: first in the National Museum in 1974 and then in the Metropolitan Museum of Manila in 1989. We must thank the family of the late National Artist Leandro V. Locsin for sharing this masterwork with the public.
Context for the painting may be found in a moving essay by Ninotschka Rosca or in an eyewitness account found in Volume 44 of the compilation of historical documents fondly referred to by scholars as “Blair & Robertson.” Fernando Manuel de Bustillo Bustamante y Rueda was governor-general of the Philippines from 1717-1719. When he found the treasury short, he implemented strict tax collection and tried to stop graft and corruption—an undertaking that all people in government, then and now, know is a dangerous thing to do. To complicate matters he got into a tangle with the Church, not on the issue of artificial birth control methods but on the issue of sanctuary. A fugitive hid from the law in a church, but he was arrested just the same by state authorities. Church leaders complained and cited the tradition of sanctuary. Bustamante had the religious leaders imprisoned, including Francisco de la Cuesta, archbishop of Manila. So a mob was mobilized in what I have always maintained was one of the first negative examples of People Power in Philippine history. Church bells tolled in Intramuros and the mob stormed the palace on the evening of Oct. 11, 1719. Blair & Robertson tell us:
“The Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians came out from their convents, each as a body, carrying in their hands crucifixes and shouting, ‘Long Live the Church! Long Live King Felipe V!’… they were joined by people of all classes and proceeded to the Church of San Agustin….
“The governor, who was roused from his sleep and informed of the arrival of the mob, sprang up and ordered the guards to keep back the crowd…. He dispatched an order to the fort to discharge artillery at the crowd; but he was so little obeyed that, although they applied a match to two cannons, these where aimed so low that the balls were buried in the middle of the esplanade of the fort.
“Without opposition, this multitude arrived at the doors of the palace…. As for the soldiers of the guard, some retreated in fear, and others in terror laid down their arms. The mob climbed up by ladders and entered the first hall, the halberdiers not firing the swivel guns that had been provided, although the governor had commanded them to do so… [the governor] attempted to discharge his gun at a citizen standing near and it missed; then the governor drew his saber and wounded the citizen; the latter, and with him all the rest, at once attacked the governor. They broke his right arm, and a blow on his head from a saber caused him to fall like one dead.”
The painting is a representation of history—with the civilian mob described above changed to a pack of avenging friars—producing one of the most powerful visual images we can subtitle with “Its more fun in the Philippines.”
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