WHEN THE FILIPINO FIRST PROVED HIMSELF TO THE WORLD
by Cielo Reyno
In May 1884, at the Exposicion Nacional de Bellas Artes held in Madrid, the Jury of Honor awarded the first of the three gold medals of the competition to Juan Luna for his painting Spoliarium, his blunt depiction of dying and dead gladiators being brutally dragged to be despoiled of their armor in the basement of Rome’s Colosseum. It was an unprecedented triumph not only for the Filipino community in Spain but also for the Filipinos.
Luna was lionized by the Spanish and Filipino intelligentsia, foremost of whom was Rizal. During a fete held in his honor, Rizal acclaimed Luna (and F. Resurreccion Hidalgo, who won 9th silver medal for his painting Virgenes Cristianas) “genuine and pure glories of two peoples!” For Rizal, Luna and Hidalgo embodied the highest ideals that the Filipino could aspire for- and proof that the soil of Filipinas, plowed by Mother Spain through three centuries of colonization, was not sterile after all but fertile, storing in its depths the seeds of genius that finally blossomed in the two. For Rizal, Luna’s victory was a slap against Mother Spain’s neglect of her Filipino children, neglect tantamount to myopia, and worst- injustice. He called on the Filipino youth- “the sacred hope of our country”, to “emulate these great examples (Luna & Hidalgo)…” and in their emulation bring about the longed-for reforms that would liberate their countrymen from the bonds of poverty, ignorance, and injustice.
Though besting two established Spanish artists by winning the 1st gold medal, Luna, only 27, was not given the “Prize of Honor”, the highest accolade usually given to the top winner. This lapse on the part of the Jury was later rectified and Luna’s genius vindicated when during his formal presentation before King Alfonso XII, the latter congratulated him and there and then conveyed his commiseration over the “Prize of Honor” issue. News of this spread and eventually reached the Spanish Senate, which promptly rectified the situation by commissioning Luna to do a painting of the Battle of Lepanto (Spanish victory against the Moors). No less than the Queen Regent Maria Cristina herself (widow of King Alfonso) unveiled his painting at the Senate Hall in November 1887. Earlier, Spoliarium’s success came full circle when the local government of Barcelona purchased it from Luna. At this point, one would have thought that he had enough glory and honor to last him a lifetime, but he outdid himself again when upon Royal order of the Queen Regent of Spain, he received the Medal of Isabela La Catolica bestowed by the Ministry of Ultramar, for his “outstanding service” to Spain.
Luna’s success was the result of years of discipline and hard work. Despite the tragedies that later struck his life- his daughter’s death, his wife’s death by his hand- he refused to buckle under, focusing instead on his work. He turned out masterpiece after masterpiece, eventually accomplishing an oeuvre of over a hundred works and continued to fight for reforms for his country.
No wonder Luna deplored Filipino students wasting their lives away in Madrid by gambling, bringing shame to their countrymen and abandoning the higher goal of proving that Filipinos were worthy of the respect of other nations. He urged them to follow his friend Rizal, knowing that despite a life of penury and hunger, often taking school exams on an empty stomach, Rizal persisted in his studies and writing in order to achieve freedom for the Filipinos.
In carrying out their cause, Luna anticipated Rizal by two years (Noli Me Tangere was finished in 1886). Spoliarium was not so much an offering for Mother Spain, but a rallying cry to Filipinos, whose sense of nationhood was yet a dream unborn. Only the educated Filipinos then had begun to grasp the meaning of nation or national identity– Luna, Rizal, Del Pila, Lopez Jaena, and other Filipinos had formed themselves into the Propaganda, a movement agitating for reforms in the Philippines as a means to free their countrymen from the cycle of poverty and ignorance. Spoliarium was not only a victory for the Filipinos but a tribute to their struggle for freedom and justice.
Many of his generation died in the country’s service –Jaena and Del Pilar succumbing to tuberculosis and Rizal shot all within one year (1896). Three years later, Luna died of a heart attack in Hong Kong. After serving as diplomat of the Philippine revolutionary government, he had hoped to return to join the new struggle for independence. He did not know that he had already done his part 15 years back, by proving to the world that the Filipinos had a right to be free, equal to any nation on earth.