‘Tumult of the throng, cry of slaves’ | Inquirer Opinion
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‘Tumult of the throng, cry of slaves’

A masterpiece by Juan Luna, “Spoliarium” proves to the world that “genius has no country.” I’m quoting from Dr. Jose Rizal’s speech at a banquet in honor of Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, who both won top prizes at the 1884 Exposition of Fine Arts in Madrid, Spain.

As we celebrate our 126th Independence Day next week, we should remember the remarkable triumph of these Filipino masters on the global stage.

Had I been alive in 1884, I would have been thrilled to attend the banquet honoring the exceptional accomplishments of the two young masters. The recognition they received from fellow Filipino reformers in Spain was well-deserved because their palettes and brushes placed Las Islas Filipinas, formerly a Spanish colony, at the center of the civilized world.

“Spoliarium” is an oil on canvas painting measuring 4.22 x 7.675 meters and is currently on display at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Manila. (Thankfully, there is no entrance fee.) It is the largest painting in the Philippines and the most recognized. Many of Luna’s works have political undertones, and “Spoliarium” is no different. Luna and Antonio, like Rizal, were part of the Propaganda Movement that advocated for reforms rather than full independence from Spain.


Chamber of the fallen. In the Roman Colosseum, the spoliarium is the basement where dead gladiators are taken and stripped of their weapons and armor before burial. At first glance, this colossal painting follows the realist tradition with its gory depiction of dead gladiators being dragged into a darkened chamber with bloodstained pavement. Luna’s depiction of the scene is so intense and detailed that one can almost smell the suffocating stench of blood, sweat, and dirt that emanates from the subterranean chamber of the fallen.

What story is being told?

“Spoliarium” is particularly focused on a singular moment in time: when the bodies are dragged into the Colosseum’s basement. To achieve balance, Luna painted onlookers rushing to the corpses on the left, balanced by a grieving woman slumped on the floor on the right. On the far right are other dark-clad characters who represent loss or silent agony. The somber tone contrasts with the energetic noise that emanates from the shouts of the Romans. Dressed in white and red togas, they are attracting the crowd’s attention while ignoring the presence of those on the right, including the woman.

Luna employed the following formal elements to achieve a powerful effect that triggers the viewers’ senses and evokes intense emotions. First, an implied line is apparent in the way the man in a white toga pushes an old man with his left hand, while his right hand bears the weight of the deceased gladiator’s helmet. He is clearing the way, but his raised arm points viewers to the focal point of the canvas—the dead gladiators. The imaginary line is strengthened by the almost symmetrical ropes used to pull the bodies. Thus, a viewer’s eyes are drawn to the movement from the left to the center of the canvas. But it is the tilted flooring that creates the illusion of movement. “Spoliarium” then emerges as a moving image, demonstrating Luna’s artistic genius.


Light and darkness. Luna played with light and darkness (chiaroscuro technique). First, the dark color shifts our attention away from those in the shadows, directing our focus to the ones he illuminates. They are primarily the corpses, those who are pulling them, the two old men, and the grieving woman. Second, a dramatic effect that captures the artist’s intention is achieved using both shape and color elements. Negative spaces and color values are represented by dark hues in the background and light hues in the center and foreground. Third, color values also provide a contrast between the way the light (emanating from above where the combats are staged) falls on the people in the crowd and the background structure (walls). The red backlight also creates the illusion of a wider space that extends to the back.

Luna employed all these visual components to follow the formal principles of art: unity, balance, movement, emphasis, and contrast. All the elements in his composition are connected, telling a story of brutality, oppression, and misery—themes that resonate well with colonized peoples around the world. But Luna, unlike Rizal, did not leave any description of his masterpiece.


Rizal, seizing the moment, supplied the words that many at the banquet wanted to say. “In El Spoliarium—on that canvas which is not mute—is heard the tumult of the throng, the cry of slaves, the metallic rattle of the armor on the corpses, the sobs of orphans, the hum of prayers …” The bachelor-hero, who would later be martyred, explained that “in Luna we find the shades, the contrasts, the fading lights, the mysterious and the terrible, like an echo of the dark storms of the tropics, its thunderbolts, and the destructive eruptions of its volcanoes.”


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