FeaturesSU alumnus shares journey in bringing home Juan Luna...

SU alumnus shares journey in bringing home Juan Luna painting


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Silliman alumnus Jaime Alfonso Larena Ponce de Leon, auctioneer, art expert, and founder and director of the Leon Art Gallery in Makati City, recently visited the campus to share his journey in search of Juan Luna’s masterpiece, Hymen, oh Hyménée!

The forum also featured a short documentary Hymen, oh Hyménée! – Juan Luna’s Long Lost Masterpiece, directed by Martin Arnaldo, in partnership with the Ayala Museum.

After over a century of being hidden from Filipinos and art collectors/enthusiasts worldwide alike, Luna’s painting was discovered by Ponce de Leon in 2014. Nine years later, it was unveiled at the Ayala Museum on June 9 last year, in time for the Philippines’ 125th Independence Day.


Unveiling Hymen, oh Hyménée!

“The reason why this exhibition even happened was because in 2022, sometime [in] October, Mariels Gustilo [senior director] of the Ayala Museum, and [senior director] Joanna Ongpin-Duarte called me [about] raising funds for the Ayala Foundation—because of what I do. My business is [conducting] auctions in Manila, and I partner with a lot of institutions to raise funds for charity,” Ponce de Leon began, recounting his experience during the open forum.

“So when we had that lunch, they [said] they needed my help for raising funds for the Foundation. Naturally, I would tell them, ‘It’s tiring to look for things to sell, to look for people to donate things…’ so I thought of sharing with them the possibility of presenting something special, which is this [Juan Luna work],” he recalled.

At the time though, Ponce de Leon admitted he was not really prepared to lend them Juan Luna’s painting.

“I had this painting since 2014. I had this painting since 2017 in Manila. It was just in a crate in my office; no one [even my staff]  knew what was in the crate,” he confided.

After much convincing, Ponce de Leon decided to say ‘yes’ to Ayala Museum, with the assurance that all proceeds go directly to where it’s intended—the Ayala Foundation. Something good had to come out of it, according to him.

“This painting has always been in the consciousness of anyone into collecting art. This has appeared in a lot of documentations, books of the 19th century. Anything that talks about Luna will always have this painting [mentioned], but no one knew where it was,” he explained.

“A guy by the name of Dr. Eleuterio Pascual was a very big collector. He was best friends with Mrs. [Imelda] Marcos. He would talk about this painting [that they actually saw] in a party they went to in the 1970s in a beautiful palace in Spain,” Ponce de Leon shared. “Of course, with the resources of the government, they could have easily brought it with Mrs. Marcos. However, the owner of the painting wasn’t prepared [to part with it] while he was alive. So everything involved the timing also,” he added.

By the time Ponce de Leon was informed of the existence of the painting, the owner had died.

“I think being at the right place, and the right time played a big role in the acquisition of this painting. It also involved a lot of knocking [on the] homes of the nobility. I had to befriend the groom of the Duchess of Alba, and all the royalty in Europe, just to be able to see this painting,” Ponce de Leon said. He revealed that in his search for Hymen, oh Hyménée!, he was able to find along the way other works by Luna. “It involves so much work, so many trips, so much courage to just try everything to find it. And here it is now,” he added.


Juan Luna and the Philippines

Luna rose to fame as a Filipino painter for his work, Spoliarium, a colossal masterpiece that won the gold prize at the renowned Madrid Art Exposition in 1884, and later on, for Hymen, oh Hyménée! which won the bronze prize at the Exposition Universelle in 1889 in Paris, France.

But Luna would face a highly-controversial reputation with the murder of his wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera y Gorricho, and his mother-in-law, Doña Juliana Gorricho, one that would overshadow his entire career for years to come.

“Historians trying to decode the painting also referred to the ‘turtle’ as Luna. You know the ending of Luna, right? Depending on which side of the story you hear, Luna killed his mother-in-law and his wife out of jealousy. So [in the painting,] the wife seems to be looking elsewhere, and Luna is under the gutter; he [must have] viewed himself as a submissive figure in their lives,” he explained.

“Luna kept this painting until the end of his life, probably still trying to give away a lot of meaning from it,” Ponce de Leon reflected.

More than a century later, the significance of the discovery of the painting was “a triumph for the Filipino, and with that, it transcends so much pride for Filipinos to have won that award,” Ponce de Leon said.


Next holy grail?

When asked where the painting might eventually end up, Ponce de Leon said he doesn’t know yet, let alone if a monetary value can be attached to it in the first place.

“As a dealer, sell [the painting]? Maybe not. Maybe give to Silliman? I don’t know,” Ponce de Leon quipped.

“Nothing can surpass this. Maybe People and Kings (in French, Peuple et Rois) — which is another work by Luna believed to have burned during the war, but who knows? It could probably just be somewhere. We’re only as good as our last find,” he noted. “Or in my case, I’m only as good as my last auction. So everything has to be better, better, better. The work gets harder, harder, harder. So let’s see,” he said.


A true red Sillimanian

Introducing Ponce de Leon in her speech, SU President Dr. Betty Cernol-McCann welcomed back the alumnus and founder/director of Leon Art Gallery, whose mission is to “make the best of Filipino art accessible to the world”.  Ponce de Leon completed his Early Childhood years, high school, and BS in Business Administration in 2003.

The President commended him for his magnanimity, pointing out that the event was “no ordinary homecoming. He came bearing a gift, sharing to us the captivating story of how a masterpiece of a National Artist was recovered after more than a century of obscurity.”

“The lost art of Juan Luna has returned to our country, providing ample opportunities for the Filipinos to marvel at the beauty of an artwork unsurpassed in its world-class caliber,” she added.

Among those present at the event were students and faculty from Foundation University, Negros Oriental State University, Colegio de Santa Catalina de Alejandria, Negros Oriental High School; personnel from the National Museum of the Philippines-Dumaguete, and the local government of Dumaguete; and the SU Culture & Arts Council. (Aaron Jalalon/SU OIP)



Photo Caption: Jaime Alfonso “Popong” Ponce de Leon (with lei), art curator and founder/director of Leon Art Gallery poses with University personnel led by SU President Dr. Betty Cernol McCann (3rd from right).






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