‘Jaimen, Oh Jaiménée’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

‘Jaimen, Oh Jaiménée’

Catty art world gossip has renamed Juan Luna’s painting “Hymen, O Hyménée” for its owner Jaime Ponce de Leon as “Jaimen, Oh Jaiménée.” Two weeks since it was unveiled to the public, the first time since it was awarded a bronze medal in the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, people are still curious about the work and the story behind its acquisition.

Contrary to popular belief, the painting was not completed in 1889 but some years earlier. Luna may have began during his Italian honeymoon, in December 1886, and finished sometime in the spring of 1887.

“Hyménée” is one of the most mature of Luna’s historical paintings that depict life in ancient Rome. Together with “Triclinium,” “Sacrificio romano,” two versions of “Las Damas romanas,” and “Spoliarium,” the work marks his crossing over from the early student or apprentice stage in his career to mature independence. “Hyménée,” painted during a fresh marriage, was rooted in bliss and optimism, of hope for a happy and productive future.

A note, seemingly minor, except for someone working on a catalogue raisonné on Luna, needs to be repeated here. The painting in this exhibition has come down to us under two titles: a descriptive Spanish title, “Boda Romana” (Roman Wedding), from a notation in Alfonso T. Ongpin’s photo documentation of Luna’s works, often misattributed as the “Luis Ma. Araneta photo file.” The notable absence of the groom in this painting suggests that Luna actually depicted the bridal procession to the bridegroom’s chamber, not the actual marriage. Another painting, “Triclinium,” depicts the happy couple, marriage consummated, seated on the lectus toasting their fortuitous future. Then there is the French “Hymen, o Hyménée!” the title found in the Paris Exposition catalogues. One contemporary newspaper account says the title and work was inspired by a nuptial chant by the poet Catullus. Of this title the perceptive E. Aguilar Cruz wrote: “This seems, by the way, a timely occasion to question the title usually given to this painting—‘Hymen, O Hymenee.’ As such it sounds like an invocation when it actually should be, if Englished, Hymen or Hymenee. Luna, whose spoken French was more than adequate, could not write the language half as well as Rizal. In giving a title to his painting of a Roman wedding he must have consulted a French dictionary and found the entry, ‘Hymen, ou hyménée,’ whose English equivalent would be closer to ‘marriage or wedding.’ In mentioning the painting later, he apparently had this dictionary entry in mind. Certainly, Luna had not intended to apostrophize the Greek God of marriage.”


“Hymen, O Hyménée” refers to Hymenaeus the ancient Greek god of marriage, who was invoked through chant and song, as a bride walked in procession to the bridegroom’s chamber, to secure the success of the marriage. Furthermore, the name of the god of marriage is rooted in a word that means “to join or sew together” and is not to be associated with the etymology of a part of a maiden’s private parts.

“Hyménée” has all the bells and whistles of a historical painting from the 19th-century Spanish school. Nubile women in drapery suggest eroticism within. Props like laurel leaves, sprigs of myrtle, chairs, and assorted architectural detail were requirements for a passing grade. Special effects like chiaroscuro and incense smoke were deployed to create mood and visual tension. All these tricks need not be repeated here except to understand the course of study in the Spanish academy in Rome completed by the young Luna that usually followed this order: first year was spent copying Greek and Roman sculpture to learn anatomy, students studied and copied classical architecture to learn ideal proportion, and finally they copied old master paintings; on the second year, they did work on the human figure; and by the third year, they utilized all the skills learned by practice, travel, and observation into one large historical painting drawn from either religious, classical, or historical texts.

If one would classify Luna’s 1881 “TheDeath of Cleopatra” as a midterm exam, the 1884 “Spoliarium” as the final or graduation exam, then the 1887 “Hyménée” is a transitional work. It is one of the last of Luna’s Roman paintings. After “Hyménée,” Luna moved from the themes and techniques of the Spanish school to greater artistic freedom in Paris and the French school.


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TAGS: juan luna, Looking Back, Philippine history

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