Let me paint the scene for you: The hall in the Na­tional Mu­seum where the Spoliarium re­sides is empty, and I en­ter. The par­quet floor reg­is­ters my foot­falls, scat­ter­ing it in stac­cato. I see the can­vas, about 10 arm spans, with its se­ri­ous frame— declar­ing the work’s ti­tle in Times New Ro­man should there be any doubt to its iden­tity—held in place by riv­ets and chains. From my dis­tance near the en­trance, I see no sup­port­ing wall. Spoliarium looks like a scene from a film noir frozen in mid-frame after the the­ater lights have been turned on. It’s a pre­mo­ni­tion made flesh by chiaroscuro and oil paint. It’s a punch of dark matter in the well-lit—glar­ingly, in fact—space of the hall.

No wa­ter­works yet. Ev­ery­thing is still calm and easy. I stand about three me­ters from its cen­ter and se­cretly curse at woe­ful se­cu­rity. No gallery staff is there to pre­vent any­one from stab­bing it with a kitchen knife and leav­ing be­hind an ugly slash. Is it per­haps be­cause it’s a Sunday, and the gallery staff needs some rest too? Or are the se­cu­rity cam­eras—which I pre­sume are many—enough to record and prompt a re­sponse should a hul­la­baloo en­sue? Or is it not part of our na­tional psy­che to de­file works of art?

My mis­take is when I de­cide to walk from the left to the right side of the paint­ing. From a viewer, a mu­seum-goer, I am in­stantly trans­formed into a char­ac­ter of the scene. From one of the spec­ta­tors who casts a wrong bet and is not yet ready to con­fess that he doesn’t ac­tu­ally have a sin­gle coin on his per­son, in a few paces I be­come a boy see­ing his gla­di­a­tor hero dead—a piece of red cloth still belted to the waist—the meat of the body dragged across the cham­ber, the leather of the san­dals cre­at­ing burn marks on pale flesh.

Skip­ping over fresh blood on the floor, I am con­fronted by the di­ag­o­nal force of the man in charge of dis­pos­ing the body, the ex­pen­di­ture of brute en­ergy most con­cen­trated on where the rope meets the wrist, the mus­cles of his back, nape, and fore­arm tight and seem­ingly about to burst. Un­like his com­pan­ion to his right, he looks at his gla­di­a­tor with full con­cen­tra­tion, not with rev­er­ence but a kind of res­ig­na­tion—to the gla­di­a­tor’s fate and to his. This is, after all, just an­other day for him, but he knows that his gla­di­a­tor is cut from a dif­fer­ent cloth, coura­geous un­til his last breath.

It is at this point when the tears come— rapid, hot, un­con­trol­lable—prompted by the vast­ness of the can­vas as well as the re­mote­ness and the an­tiq­uity of its world, the light that flares on the dead body of the of gla­di­a­tor that is some­how trans­mit­ted to his un­der­taker, unit­ing them in a glow of one can­dle­power, the ar­ro­gant in­dif­fer­ence of the spec­ta­tors, the shad­ows climb­ing the walls and swarm­ing off in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, the yawn­ing dark­ness that awaits us all—ev­ery man, woman, and child—and, yes, even by that belt—its sub­lime util­ity, that con­cen­trated shine of the buckle—that will be taken off from him: in the Spoliarium, each dead gla­di­a­tor will be stripped of his al­ready mea­ger pos­ses­sions.

When I step to­ward the woman, no­tice­able for her am­bit of space and white and sea­green dress drap­ing her body and re­veal­ing her shoul­der, my grief is com­plete. There is no doubt that she is mourn­ing the dead, so stricken with and par­a­lyzed by tor­ment that she won’t dare re­veal her face. She, like me, is shed­ding tears. But, un­like me, she will go on with her grief, cry her im­po­tent but dig­ni­fied tears, be in­con­solable for the rest of the time that Spoliarium ex­ists—the in­dict­ment and the moral force in this de­pic­tion of bar­barism, the metaphor of war, the sub­ju­ga­tion of one per­son by an­other for the amuse­ment of oth­ers.

I am not the only one who has cried over a paint­ing—or, I would like to haz­ard, over

Spoliarium. “It turns out that view­ers cried in front of paint­ings in the late Mid­dle Ages and early Re­nais­sance, and again in the 18th cen­tury, and again in the 19th each time for dif­fer­ent rea­sons and with dif­fer­ent pictures,” writes James Elkins in his book, Pictures and Tears: A His­tory of Peo­ple Who Have Cried in

Front of Paint­ings. “Few cen­turies, it seems, are as de­ter­minedly tear­less as ours. Some peo­ple still do cry over paint­ings—a small group, nearly in­vis­i­ble in the masses of un­moved mu­seum vis­i­tors.

Elkins has de­ter­mined two pri­mary rea­sons why peo­ple cry over a work of art: “Roughly half the cases con­verge on two kinds of ex­pe­ri­ence that are very close to each other, and yet com­pletely op­posed. In one, peo­ple cry be­cause pictures seem un­bear­ably full, com­plex, daunt­ing, or some­how too close to be prop­erly seen. In the other, they cry be­cause pictures seem un­bear­ably empty, dark, painfully vast, cold and some­how too far away to be un­der­stood.”

No doubt that Spoliarium is a com­plex work. Mea­sur­ing four me­ters in height and seven me­ters in width, the work em­bod­ies the qual­i­ties that a fine arts academy would ap­plaud in the 1800s: the strong nar­ra­tive rooted in clas­si­cal im­agery, the mas­ter­ful play of light and dark, the cred­i­ble per­spec­tive, the strik­ing verisimil­i­tude of the fig­ures. When Juan Luna sub­mit­ted it to the Ex­posi­ción Na­cional de Bel­las

Artes in Madrid in 1884, the work walked away with one of the three gold medals.

But its com­plex­ity is only part of the pic­ture. Per­haps, I am re­spond­ing more to its aura, Wal­ter Ben­jamin’s idea of an art­work’s

pre­sent­ness in time and space, de­spite or be­cause of one’s fa­mil­iar­ity with it through its many re­pro­duc­tions. That, fi­nally see­ing the real thing, I am con­fronted by its im­me­di­acy, its truth­ful­ness that can never be re­peated by a du­pli­cate, evoked, as it were, by mul­ti­tudi­nous brush­strokes ac­cru­ing and re­solv­ing into mus­cles and tor­sos, red robes and pools of blood, poses and at­ti­tudes, even the quizzi­cal, un­sym­pa­thetic gaze of the two old men con­fer­ring with each other.

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