Curious Questions: Juan Luna’s Spoliarium


This was my reaction when I first saw the Spoliarium upon entering the main hall of the National Museum of Fine Arts

A big part of it’s wow-factor is its size – 4.22 meters wide and 7.675 meters tall – it was enough to cover a whole wall. And then I realized Juan Luna painted it in the 1880’s, and I can’t help but “wow” again. Without the help of modern instruments Luna painted this by hand – oil on canvas – and I can’t help but be curious about how he did it.

The Spoliarium as displayed in the National Museum of Fine Arts.

If I could go back in time and watch a piece of history unfold, I’d choose to watch how Juan Luna painted the Spoliarium.

Sure, I can choose something more unknown like the Battle of Mactan, but aside from getting clarity about what really happened back then, watching all the killing doesn’t really seem that appealing to me. The same goes for all the other battles in history.

There are other iconic moments I can choose to watch, but a lot of them have adaptations already. They may or may not be 100% accurate, but other people have already studied them enough to know more or less what happened.

But how Luna painted the Spoliarium? That’s still more of an unknown for me.

Why did he decide to paint it? How did he arrive at the image of gladiators being dragged away? How much of the interpretations are true? 

According to Jose Rizal, it “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.” 

Was this how Luna interpreted his painting? Or did he have another meaning to it? What about all the other details?

And then there’s how he actually painted it – which part did he start with? Did he make any revisions along the way?  Did he ever think about not finishing it anymore? Were there many failed attempts before the finished product?

How did they transport it from where he made it to the ship that carried it to Spain for the competition (the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884). I imagine transporting something that big during those times would have been hard.

That’s a lot of curious questions into how the masterpiece we see today was made.

But if I do get to watch it, I hope there’s an option to fast forward, or it’s just a summary of the highlights. It is said that it took Luna eight months to finish the painting. Imagine spending eight months making that one piece. Not having the internet and Netflix probably helped. 

I’m curious about his process, but I don’t think I can spend eight months just watching him do it.


// by Francis Abad


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