The Spoliarium depicts a landscape of human emotions with an undertone of mortality and human greed. Dying gladiators in the final throes of suffering getting dragged along the bloody tiles of the Colosseum represent the Pearl of the Orient, languishing in the ills of the colonizers. Luna also successfully integrated the image of people interested in getting their spoils into the background, like hungry vultures waiting for the opportune time. The overall scene can be candidly described as grotesque, a macabre celebration of human mortality and the afterlife.
When you see Luna’s masterpiece, not only will you marvel at the scale. It’s one of the biggest paintings you’ll see, but you’ll also feel as if Luna’s ready to speak to you to explain the events unfolding. Luna’s scene captured a slice of life – it appears so life-like, the viewer can seemingly project themselves into it. It seems casual observers can get transported straight into the era. You can almost hear the clanking of the body armor as the gladiator gets dragged along, smell the stench of death and decay and taste the blood in the air. The elements of color, light, lines, and time coalesced perfectly, trapping this image in perpetuity.
Luna effectively used chiaroscuro (for you, paisanos, it’s the contrast of light and dark) to recreate the somber mood and transport the observer right there and then. The colors also contributed to the Classical Renaissance style that Luna seemed to be partial with as an artist. Upon closer inspection, Luna’s brush strokes aren’t perfect, but it does give off a certain texture that contributes to its life-like quality.
You’ll also notice that your eyes are drawn right at the gladiator, just like the artist intended. Luna’s use of proportion, coupled with the illusion of movement, seemingly overwhelms the other elements of the scene. However, once you tear your attention away from it, you’ll see the other details. You’ll recognize how they add to the overall unity and cohesion of the masterpiece. They don’t scream for attention, but their placement and aesthetic value also add to the totality of the artwork.
The Spoliarium, truth be told, cannot and shouldn’t be taken in at one go. When you visit the National Museum, you’ll need more than one look to understand its significance. You’ll run through a gamut of emotions as you realize you’re seeing greatness. Seeing it for the first time is akin to a religious experience. Seeing it several other times will still leave you in awe, not only at the depth and breadth of Luna’s talent but at its message that rings true through the years.
1st and featured image from https://www.tatlerasia.com/culture/arts/the-tragic-life-and-legacy-of-filipino-painter-juan-luna