The vision and mission of the National Museum of the Philippines call for it to be premier institution and repository of our heritage. No more is this very evident than in the “Hall of the Masters”.
This room, formerly known as the Old House of Representative Session Hall, is dedicated to the 19th-century Filipino painters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo who achieved prominence at the 1884 Madrid Exposition. Luna’s Spoliarium received one of the three gold medals and Hidalgo’s Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho (Christian Virgins Presented to the Populace) received one of the fourteen silver medals. The triumph of the two was a breakthrough for Philippine art and a great source of pride for Pinoys in Europe and in the Philippine archipelago, at that time. The pride was so palpable and special, leading our National Hero Jose P. Rizal to gush eloquent when in a speech at a celebratory banquet in Restaurante Ingles held June 25, 1884 he declaimed:
“Therefore I raise a toast to our artists Luna and Hidalgo, legitimate and pure glories of TWO PEOPLES! I raise a toast to those who have given them assistance along the painful path of art! I offer a toast that the Filipino youth, sacred hope of MY COUNTRY, may imitate such precious models and that Mother Spain,4 solicitous and attentive to the wellbeing of her provinces, may soon put into practice the reforms that she has long considered; for the furrow has been plowed and the earth is not barren! And finally, I offer a toast to the happiness of parents who, deprived of their sons’ affection, from those distant regions follow them with tearful gaze and beating heart through the seas and the distance, sacrificing on the altar of the common good the sweet consolations that are so scarce in life’s twilight..” (Speech taken from http://joserizal.nhcp.gov.ph/Writings/Speeches/speeches.htm).
I had the pleasure of visiting this Bulwagang Luna at Hidalgo last May 30 when I got invited by Olivia Yao, Cressie Allanigue, Ana Baclig and the good people of Security Bank to a cocktail (more of that in the next article). Accompanying me on this journey for the arts was my son Marcel and we were both awe-inspired when we gazed live, for the first time, the Luna masterpiece “Spoliarium”.
The nation’s most cherished painting is hugely impressive. With dimensions of 4.22 meters x 7.675 meters, it is the largest oil on canvas in the Philippines. It dwarfs a full grown man, let alone my budding teen age son. “Spoliarium” is a Latin word that refers to the basement of the Roman Colosseum. This is where mortally-wounded and dying gladiators are thrown and is dark and drama filled. Looking at it, one can easily be transported to the historical epic film that starred Russel Crowe in 2000. The artistry of Juan Luna captures all these and then some. Allow me to quote the words again from our one and only National Hero:
“In The Spoliarium, through that canvas which is not mute, one hears the noise of the crowd, the shouts of the slaves, the metallic clanking of the dead bodies’ armor, the sobbing of orphans, the murmured prayers, with as much vigor and realism as one hears the deafening noise of thunder amid the crashing sound of a waterfall or the awesome, terrifying shaking of an earthquake. The same nature that births such phenomena also intervenes in those brushstrokes.”
Try closing your eyes and conjure up the images from Rizal’s words about the Spolarium and I bet the images are similar to the following pictures I took of this Luna obra maestra:
Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” is not alone in this “Hall of Masters”. As we finished gazing admirably at it, we turned back to the door and we are confronted with another giant of a masterpiece. This time, it is by Felix Hidalgo. It is not the “Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho” though. The painting about the Virgins is housed in the Metropolitan Museum, the museum within the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas complex along Roxas Boulevard.
What the Bulwagang Luna at Hidalgo has is the painting entitled “La Tragedia de Gobernador Bustamante”. It is a also a declared national treasure and is a depiction of a historical event in 18th century Spanish-ruled Philippine islands. While Spolarium is wide, this Hidalgo painting is tall and seems to loom over us. What we see is a historical spectacle full of color and emotion. The spectacle I see is enriched with bright colors and fine fixtures such as those of the elaborately embroidered standards, the governor’s clothes and the surplice of a sacristan at the foreground right. The clothes worn by the soldiers and the governor kind of reminded me of Europe and I guess that is what Intramuros Manila back in the day was, a European City in Asia. More than the color, the historical story is what gave it more meaning.
And what is the story? Who was Governor Bustamante? Why are the assassins in the painting men of the cloth?
Fernando Manuel de Bustillo Bustamante y Rueda was appointed by the Spanish King Philip V as Governor General in the Philippines on September 6, 1708 and arrived at Manila on August 9, 1717. Upon arrival in Manila, the Governor General discovered the treasury to be in poor shape. This despite the abundance of Spanish galleons plying the lucrative trade route between Manila and Acapulco. Clearly, there was the heavy stench of corruption in the air and the new chief executive of the Spanish administration in the Philippines started an anti-corruption campaign by pursuing investigations of persons who held royal offices in trust before his arrival. As a result of these investigations, several govt officials were earmarked for arrest. These govt officials, in an effort to avoid arrest, took sanctuary in the Manila Cathedral, bringing with them important documents. Bustamante tried pressuring Archbishop Francisco dela Cuesta to turn over the erring officials and the documents. But the Manila Archbishop was in a cuddling mood and refused the Governor General who ended up having dela Cuesta arrested which triggered a people power march of Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians (no Jesuits?) to the Palacio del Gobernador. The clergy mob overpowered the soldiers and were able to catch Bustamante and repeatedly stabbed him (the imagery I am reminded of is the Roman Senate ganging up and stabbing Julius Caesar) on that fateful day of Oct 11, 1719. The 18th century version of the “Tuwid na Daan” derailed by friars.
The Hidalgo painting is a sad commentary of that particular time. And this sadness continues to pervade our country’s politics characterized by corruption; govt officials evading justice by hiding or getting sanctuary from the church or the court of appeals. And in the 21st Century, the all-powerful church in the local political scene is not only the Catholic Church but includes new alphabetical denominations such as INC, ES and JIL.
Let us go back to the Luna and Hidalgo obras. Another question is how these paintings came to be in the possession of the National Museum. For the journeys of these paintings, I rely on the website http://masterpieces.asemus.museum/ for the details.
Spolarium. Juan Luna started this painting around July 1883 in Rome and completed in March 1884. It was first shown at the Palazzi della Esposione at Via Nazionale together with the works of other Spanish painters in Rome. It was exhibited at the National Exposition of Fine Arts of Madrid in 1884 and won the First of the Three Gold Medals. In 1885 it was purchased by the Provincial Government of Barcelona, exhibited at the Salon of Painting in Paris in 1886, and was placed in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Barcelona in 1887. It was badly damaged during the Spanish Civil War. It was restored and sent to the Prado Generalissimo Franco who ordered the donation of the work to the Philippines around 1956. It was turned over to the Philippines Embassy in Spain in 1958. It was unveiled at the National Museum in 1962.
La Tragedia de Gobernador Bustamante. This painting was first exhibited in 1905 at the St. Louis Exposition in the United States of America where it won a gold medal. Don Antonio Ma. Regidor, a Filipino nationalist, who commissioned the painting never took hold of it. The artist Hidalgo himself did not dare show it in Barcelona for fear that the subject would evoke controversy. The painting remained in Barcelona until 1914, a year after the painter’s death. The painting was brought back to the Philippines by one of his relatives. In 1965, the painting came into the possession of Mr. Manuel Lazatin Garcia. In 1971, it was transferred to the residence of architect Leandro Locsin for safekeeping. Mr. Garcia, motivated by his nationalistic attitude, called on the National Museum and offered the masterpiece for public exhibition. The painting was unveiled in 1974 at the National Museum in time for the celebration of Museum Week and it was declared a National Cultural Treasure.
Imagine that. We have the benevolence of a Spanish dictator to thank for the Luna obra. While that of the Hidalgo masterpiece, the patriotism of a National Artist.
There is so much to explore at the National Museum of the Philippines. Our culture, our history, our heritage are so much colourful and vibrant. Thank God we have geniuses and heroes like Juan Luna and Felix Hildago that proves the point.
P.S. The National Museum is located at P. Burgos Drive, Rizal Park, Manila. It is open Tuesdays to Sundays (10 am to 5 pm). There is a minimal entrance fee but it you want free, visit on a Sunday.