Stripped to his bloodied loin cloth, a dead gladiator is dragged by his right arm by a blood-drenched orderly in the spoliarium (abattoir) of the Roman Coliseum. The gladiator had lost in the spectator sport where two combatants fought “sine missione” (to the death) for the entertainment of the emperor and the leering, jeering, blood-hungry public who had jostled and bribed for bleacher seats in the four-story high Coliseum which had a capacity of 50,000.
Dead or near-dead, the losing gladiator was to officially die at the thumbs-down decision “police verso” — of the emperor. And so, the loser lost their life and all possessions. Two Coliseum attendants are seen lugging out the armor, weapons, and raiment of the conquered — all to be turned over to the winning gladiator. “Please, don’t it take all,” the man in white tunic seems to say to those carting off the spoils of the combat. He was the trainer-coach, the lanista of the fallen warrior, who would then need to set up logistics for his next gladiator-trainee. On the right is a woman in blue, mourning the loss of her loved one, the fallen warrior. Behind her is an old man, seeming to be scavenging for leftover food or abandoned things, or perhaps suffering dementia, looking for his dead son. In the gallery box on the left side of the spoliarium, a crowd with various expressions of sadistic voyeurism watches the goings-on.
It is like walking into the spoliarium of the 4th-6th century AD, when dramatic gladiator contests ingrained in the minds of the people the awesome might of the Roman Empire and the absolute power of the emperors over human life and rights. Our view of how it was in the Roman era comes from the great Filipino artist Juan Luna’s Spoliarium, which I just described.
Painted over eight months in 1884, it won first prize in the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Spain in 1886. Juan Luna, then 27 years old, was with the group of young Filipino intelligentsia who were studying and living in Spain, imbibing the ambience of European liberal thinking. José Protasio Rizal, then 24, intellectual writer and polymath, was in Madrid with Juan Luna and the group of enlightened young Filipino nationalists active at the end of the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines.
“At a gathering of Filipino expatriates in Madrid, José Rizal enthusiastically toasted the triumphs of his two compatriots had achieved, the other being Félix Hidalgo who won a silver medal, calling it ‘fresh proof of racial equality’” (Guerrero, Leon (1974). The First Filipino: A Biography of José Rizal (PDF) (5th ed.). Manila: National Historical Commission. p. 112).
In his congratulatory speech, Rizal said, “Luna’s Spoliarium with its bloody carcasses of slave gladiators being dragged away from the arena where they had entertained their Roman oppressors with their lives… stripped to satisfy the lewd contempt of their Roman persecutors, with their honor embodied the essence of our social, moral and political life: humanity in severe ordeal, humanity unredeemed, reason and idealism in open struggle with prejudice, fanaticism and injustice” (Ibid. p. 114).
“Rizal was inspired to carve a mark of his own to give glory to his country by writing his ‘Spoliarium’ since early that year 1884 ‘he had been toying with the idea of a book’ for he has seen and described the painting as ‘the tumult of the crowd, the shouts of slaves, the metallic clatter of dead men’s armor, the sobs of orphans, the murmured prayers…’. Rizal’s book would be called Noli Me Tangere, ‘the Latin echo of the Spoliarium’” (Ibid., pp. 119-120, 122).
Graciano Lopez-Jaena, contemporary and co-nationalist of Juan Luna and José Rizal said, “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” (quoted by critic Butch Dalisay, philstar.com, July 17, 2006).
The somber chiaroscuro of dark umbers shocked by impressionistic strokes of light on the main figures in the painting urges a sinking mood of loss and helplessness, perhaps even eliciting some hidden guilt from unsure complicity in the strong message of oppression in society. In the shadows are various blurred faces, not even looking at the dead gladiator, thinking their own thoughts. Some art critics might say it was Juan Luna’s demo of the fin de siècle (French: “end of the century”) artistic climate of sophistication, escapism, extreme aestheticism, world-weariness, and fashionable despair. But no.
The muted but discernible red, white, and blue (the colors of the Philippine flag) triangulated in the tableau of the Spoliarium clearly call for patriotism and the defense of the freedoms of the people. Perhaps because Juan Luna was identified with the expat propagandist group of José Rizal in Madrid, it was mothballed after a three-year exhibition in the Museo del Arte Moderno in Barcelona where it was thereafter in storage until the museum was burned and looted during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The badly damaged Spoliarium stayed for 20 years more in Spain until Generalissimo Francisco Franco turned over the partially restored painting to the Philippines in January 1958.
The Spoliarium was unveiled and exhibited in the Hall of Flags of the Department of Foreign Affairs (the current-day Department of Justice building on Padre Faura St. in Manila) in December 1962. One might wonder why it’s coming home was not much-trumpeted, but perhaps the Vietnam War that had started in 1961 and raged until 1975 occupied much of the world’s mind including the Philippines then. Before the Vietnam War even ended, Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr. declared Martial Law in the country in 1972, to last until 1986, when Marcos was ousted in the Feb. 25, 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution. The message of the Spoliarium did not quite jibe with Martial Law.
After painstaking repair and cleaning by restoration artists over some 40 years, the massive oil-on canvas painting, measuring 9.05 meters by 5.59 meters (framed), now hangs floor-to-ceiling in the main gallery at the first floor of the National Museum of Fine Arts in Manila. It is the first work of art that greets visitors upon entry into the museum.
Before the restrictions of the COVID pandemic, throngs used to queue to view the awesome Spoliarium, even to have pictures taken beside it, almost like being in it, like a location shot for its massiveness. Been there, done that. Seen this, seen that. Is it all there is to view the Spoliarium and be part of that impersonal crowd that Juan Luna painted in, the onlookers to the deathly spectator sport, not quite looking at the fallen gladiator and feeling for the meaning of his death?
The Spoliarium Hall was formerly the House of Representatives Session Hall, site of the 1934 Constitutional Convention. It was the first time the Filipinos under American rule were allowed to write a fundamental law that would guide them towards autonomy and independence. Of the 202 delegates to the 1934 Constitutional Convention, three became Presidents of the Philippines, namely, José Laurel, Manuel Roxas, and Elpidio Quirino.
The same venue was previously used for the inauguration of former presidents Manuel L. Quezon in 1935, José P. Laurel in 1943, and Manuel Roxas in 1946 when it was then known as the Legislative Building.
On June 30, 2022, Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr. will be inaugurated as the 17th President of the Philippines — at the National Museum of Fine Arts, in the overpowering aura of the Spoliarium.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.