Who Helped Ponce De Leon Find Luna’s Lost Painting?

I thought I’d seen it all as far as Juan Luna was concerned, but I was proven wrong! You see, I am familiar with a well-traveled Filipino diplomat-friend who actively collects Luna obras. I have likewise visited some London and Madrid homes where the living and dining rooms’ crowning glories were Luna masterpieces. Several residences in cities around the Philippines host the reversed painter’s treasured creations.

Photographs by Edu Jarque | Details of The Painting

Two leading, specialized galleries somehow summon a Luna or two in their regular auctions held throughout the year. And if one had not seen the actual paintings, there are a number of books, magazines and articles written about his canvases — not to mention fora, documentaries and films — so we have all somehow been exposed to the best of the best.

And guess what, another Luna has recently just been unveiled to the public, creating waves and eventually becoming the talk of the town, during the celebration of 125th anniversary of the declaration of Philippine independence at the prestigious Ayala Museum.

With great pride and honor, the institution opens its portals to an exhibit “Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as Hero” with a well-thought-out maze which frames the luster and legacy of Luna. The show excites guests as it gradually builds up to a magical climax, the long-lost obra maestra Hymen, Oh Hyménée, which finally makes its debut.


A brief backgrounder: During the inauguration of none other than the Eiffel Tower in 1889 at the Exposition Universelle, the Filipino painter revealed this creation from his personal collection, when the iconic Spoliarium and the historical La Batalle de Lepanto were barred from leaving Madrid. However, Hymen, Oh Hyménée had its own footprint — clinching a coveted bronze medal. The award-winning canvas had been in Luna’s possession until his death in Hong Kong.

A Juan Luna bust from the University of Santo Tomas Museum (Photo by Edu Jarque)

After he passed on, the painting was safekept in private hands in Europe. Upon hearing whispers of the touted “Holy Grail of Philippine Art,” León Gallery founder Jaime Ponce de Leon earnestly commenced a decades-long tireless search, following hints, signs, traces, evidences and clues across the European continent.

Details of the painting (Photo by Edu Jarque)
Details of the painting (Photo by Edu Jarque)

A promising lead to start was none other than the Marques de Casa Riera, the virtuoso’s very own wedding sponsor. “The works of Luna were associated with the nobility. The Marques was the grandfather of Queen Fabiola and was an influential figure in business and among the nobility,” Ponce de Leon revealed.

“I kept contact with them through the years. They likewise introduced me to other aristocratic families who had any art relating to Luna or the Philippines,” he further said. “I also have a book — a Libro de Nobleza — to guide me on certain numbers to call among the nobility.”

And yet, he was absolutely dumbfounded. He still did not know who had the painting. He was even teased by rumors on the painting through exchanges with certain friends.

A blessing came in the form of Mike Stilianopoulos, the Philippine ambassador to Spain and later assigned to the Court of Saint James, and wife, socialite-philanthropist Pitita Ridruejo, who was dubbed to be the most interesting lady to be with in Spain — or so they say. In fact, even King Juan Carlos made certain she was present at every function. Famed global artist Andy Warhol even painted her. The couple’s friendship with the late art collector, Dr. Eleuterio “Teyet” Pascual, confirmed that he once laid his eyes on the elusive painting some years ago with an aristocratic family.

Ponce de Leon’s arduous hunt continued. “I had to knock on people’s doors to find the Luna. But all to naught. Then, in 2014, I received a call to be present at an address at exactly 10 a.m. I was welcomed into a lordly home, where I was ushered in to the drawing room. And there it was!” he exclaimed.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was beyond words,” he admitted.

Lo and behold, his quest had finally come to a victorious end.

Measuring 49.2 inches by 98.6 inches, Hymen, Oh Hyménée exemplifies precise brushstrokes and pronounced impasto, which all creates an image of a bridal party with flowers strewn around the marble floors, a fresh and modern image for Paris of 1889.

The revered piece, painted during their honeymoon, is believed to reflect Luna’s wedding with Paz Pardo de Tavera, who died by his own hands in a crime of passion. The image represents the bride off-center to the left, cloaked by a veil and detached from the festivities. Meanwhile, the groom is conspicuously absent. Of interest is a small tortoise on the corner of a step which symbolizes his desire for the bride to be docile.

A video narrative by renowned historian Dr. Ambeth R. Ocampo is not to be missed. Other come-ons include a 21-minute documentary by Paris-based Filipino director Martin Arnaldo which chronicles the adventure to recover the painting — set to be aired on CNN Philippines on 8 July — plus a book of essays by Arnaldo, Ocampo and Ayala Museum curators Ditas Samson, Tenten Mina and Jei Ente.

Photograph courtesy of Ayala Museum | Ceremonial turnover of the ‘Splendor’ catalogue to NCCA chairman Ino Manalo, flanked by Jaime Ponce de Leon of Leon Gallery and Mariles Gustilo of Ayala Museum, with the curators and contributors. From left: Jei Ente, Ditas Samson, De Leon, Manalo, Gustilo, Martin Arnaldo and Tenten Mina.

“For all of us at Ayala Museum and our partners, thrilled by the idea of Juan Luna’s Hymen, Oh Hyménée finally home where it belongs, to be party to its revelation to the Filipino people on such a momentous occasion as the 125th anniversary of our country’s nationhood is not just serendipitous, it is a privilege and honor,” shared Ayala Museum senior director Mariles Gustilo.

You better not miss this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.

Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as Hero is co-presented by Ayala Corporation, Ayala Land, Insular, with major sponsors Bank of the Philippine Islands and Smeg Philippines. Additional support was provided by Samsung and Matimco. The exhibit runs until 30 December at the Ayala Museum.