Juan Luna’s long-lost masterpiece, Hymen, oh Hyménée!, has reemerged after 132 years and has returned to the Philippines for the first time. Regarded as the “holy grail of Philippine art,” this painting was thought to have been destroyed during the revolution but has now been found, much to the delight of art collectors and enthusiasts. Unlike Luna’s well-known Spoliarium, Hymen, oh Hyménée! tells a gentler tale, portraying a Roman wedding feast with its hues of marble white and bold red.
The painting holds significant personal meaning for Luna, as he worked on it during his honeymoon trip with his wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera. Their marriage faced disapproval due to societal differences and racial prejudices, making the imagery in the painting possibly reflect their own wedding experience.
Last seen by the public in 1889 when it won a bronze medal at the Paris World’s Fair, the painting remained hidden for over a century, fueling speculation and rumors about its existence. The recent quest to find Hymen, oh Hyménée! took nearly a decade, driven by the passion and dedication of art collector Jaime Ponce de Leon. He tirelessly pursued leads across Europe, embracing his obsession to uncover this mythical artwork.
In 2014, de Leon received a mysterious call from an old friend, leading him to a European aristocratic home where the painting was concealed. Although he didn’t disclose the details of its acquisition, de Leon safely stored the painting in his storeroom, awaiting the perfect moment to bring it back to the Philippines.
In 2022, due to extraordinary circumstances, de Leon agreed to loan the painting to the Ayala Museum, where it now resides as the centerpiece of the exhibition Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as Hero. The exhibition revolves around this rediscovered cultural treasure, shedding light on its historical context and exploring Luna’s impact on Philippine history and national identity. It not only delves into the stories depicted within the canvas but also raises questions about the multifaceted nature of Juan Luna as a hero, a painter, and a person.
The exhibition, commemorating the 125th anniversary of Philippine independence, will open to the public on June 12 at the Ayala Museum. In a gesture of inclusivity, admission to both the museum and the Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as Hero exhibition will be free, inviting everyone to appreciate and engage with this remarkable artwork.
The rediscovery of Hymen, oh Hyménée! goes beyond a mere artistic event. It serves as a bridge connecting the past and present, offering insights into a pivotal moment in history when the world was on the verge of change, and the Philippines was inching toward its own revolution. This masterpiece represents the resilience, creativity, and cultural heritage of the Filipino people, reminding us of the power of art to transcend time and bring forth meaningful narratives.