After 132 years, Juan Luna’s awe-inspiring masterpiece “Hymen, oh Hyménée!” is revealed to the public.
The Painting’s Storied History
From 1884 to 1889, Juan Luna experienced a golden period of artistic success while living in Paris. His renowned painting, the “Spoliarium” had just won a gold medal in the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid in 1884, which marked the start of an accomplished period in his career. By 1886, he had married Paz Pardo de Tavera, and on their honeymoon, began to work on a series of paintings during their sojourn throughout Rome and Venice. In this series, he completed portraits of his wife, as well as “Hymen, oh Hyménée!”, which was to become one of his most favored paintings that he kept in his studio for his personal enjoyment.
At this time, Paris stood as the brilliant of epicenter of art, much as it is today. In 1899, Luna entered the Exposition Universelle, the groundbreaking World’s Fair held in Paris celebrating the 100th year of the French Revolution. It was here that Luna won a bronze medal for his entry. During this time, Luna’s reputation soared, solidifying his status as a “master painter” and further elevating the artistic capital of the Filipino painter, without the racial bias prominent in the world during the late 19th century.
The Quest and Discovery for “The Holy Grail”
Jaime Ponce de Leon, auctioneer, art expert, and founder of the esteemed Leon Gallery, described the historical significance of the painting, “Paris was the ground zero of art. Luna also won an award, but that was in Madrid [for the “Spoliarium”], and Madrid was the—you would call it provincial, or you know in simpler terms—Palarong Pambansa. And this painting [“Hymen, oh Hyménée!”] won in Paris, which was like… the Olympics of art. So this put him in the pantheon of the greatest artists of the world.”
A prized work by Luna, “Hymen, oh Hyménée!” stayed with the painter for a decade until his death in Hong Kong in 1899, when it mysteriously vanished.
There were several theories that speculated on what happened to the painting. Juan Luna is well-known for his pardoned crime of passion killing his wife and mother-in-law. Many conjectured that the family had burned the artwork out of spite. Others believed it had been destroyed during the war. Despite conflicting theories, the painting could not be found, so the mythos around the painting emerged as the “Holy Grail of Philippine Art.”
It was only in the 1980s that the painting reemerged when Filipino collector Dr. Eleuterio Pascual came across the painting in the home of an aristocratic family in Europe, who purchased the painting in the 1920s. Several collectors came and went, attempting to buy the painting to bring it back to its homeland, all to no avail.
It was only in 2014 that Leon Gallery owner Jaime Ponce de Leon came across the painting after a decade-long search in Europe. His snooping was scrupulous. Name by name, de Leon went through a book of the nobility in Spain and France, contacting each and every person in the book. Until he got a call that he had to be at the doorstep of a certain home in Spain at 10 AM. He traveled to the aristocratic home and as he was ushered into the drawing room, he stood before the long-lost Luna.
It would become the most expensive artwork de Leon had ever purchased. For many years, the auctioneer stored it away in secret. It was only in a meeting with Ayala Museum last 2022 that he decided to collaborate with the institution on an unprecedented long-term loan, finding the perfect time to release to the public in an exhibit commemorating the 125th Anniversary of Philippine Independence.
Ayala Museum’s exhibition, “Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as Hero” curated by scenographer Gino Gonzales, explores the iconic painting through three themes: the world in 1889, Juan Luna as a heroic painter, and the intricate symbolism of the Roman wedding feast depicted in the artwork — a rendition in dreamlike pastels with figures of Romans, who stand across grand columns on a marbled floor strewn with flowers.
The exhibition features a catalog of essays written by historian Ambeth R. Ocampo, film director Martin Arnaldo, and curators Ditas Samson, Tenten Mina, and Jei Ente. While a documentary film by Martin Arnaldo re-tells the exciting journey of recovering the artwork, and the circumstances of the Ilustrado diaspora, relatable to Filipinos working abroad today.
Throughout his life, Luna won a slew of awards that placed him on the top tier in the international art world in the late 19th century, giving great recognition to the Philippines a country to be reckoned with. Historian Ambeth Ocampo describes his various awards, from a silver medal in Madrid with “The Death of Cleopatra” to another silver for “People and the Kings” in the St. Louis Exposition in the United States. Ocampo writes, “Not one to rest on his laurels, Luna painted consistently, furiously, in pursuit of that one last laurel, the “Medal of Honor,” a recognition that eluded him the rest of his life.” Yet perhaps posthumously, his work continues to receive the recognition it garnered in the past while continuing to be acclaimed until today.
“Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as Hero,” mounted with the cooperation of León Gallery, runs at Ayala Museum from June 12, 2023, to December 31, 2023.