I can almost smell the blood just looking at Juan Luna’s Spoliarium.

The ghostly but sharp acrid smell of it stung my nostrils as I stared into a triangle of light over two living men dragging the broken bodies of dead gladiators into the bowels of the Colosseum, where they will be stripped of their armor and last belongings, past a grieving woman and a father with a torch, searching in vain for a lost offspring.

Long have I yearned to see this magnum opus. As a child, I have read about the Spoliarium. As an adult, on my first visit to Rome, I thought of it as I set foot inside the Colloseum and lingered outside the dungeons where Barbary lions and great beasts paced not far from prize fighters, doomed folks and martyrs.

I don’t know why but I think of the Spoliarium and Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” in the same breath.

Gericault inspired another Romantic painter whom Luna admired – Eugene Delacroix, whose magnum opus, “Liberty Leading the People” I’ve seen at the Louvre, but who painted a good number of death scenes as well.

Gericault painted the survivors of a sunken frigate who drifted in a raft, starved and ate each other – based on a true story. Luna’s gladiators were figments of his imaginings though of course, he recreated the reality of bygone times – where men fought men and beasts to the death to amuse spectators.

Some great art is strangely preoccupied with Death.

Then too, the darkness of Luna’s subject must have betrayed the brutality, the violence, hidden deep in the artist himself. Luna painted the Spoliarium when he was twenty-four. A decade and a year later, his wife and her mother will die by those same hands that so deftly wielded the paintbrush.

In a fit of jealousy, Luna murdered his wife, Maria de la Paz Pardo de Tavera and his mother-in-law. He wounded his brother-in-law.

He was arrested but was acquitted after pleading temporary insanity.

Juan Luna died aged 42, of heart attack, after his brother, General Antonio Luna, was assassinated by members of the battalion he had dismissed for insubordination.

Sadly, fire devoured some of his great canvases during World War II.

Now, Luna sleeps forever in his tomb in my favorite church, where I hear mass most Sundays – San Augustin in Manila… not too far from the National Museum, which displays his masterpiece, the Spoliarium.


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