Juan Luna Filipino artist painter Hymen o Hymenee Roman Wedding Boda Romana Jaime Ponce de Leon Holy Grail of Philippine Art Long Lost Museum
A photo of “Hymen, oh Hyménée!” by renowned Filipino painter Juan Luna. Photo: Courtesy of Jaime Ponce de Leon

This Long-Lost Masterpiece Was Unveiled For the First Time in 134 Years

The painting by the renowned but troubled painter was lost after his death, but was eventually found in a noble European family’s home.

Paris, 1889. A Filipino won a bronze medal at the prestigious world’s fair Exposition Universelle, which marked the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution and for which the Eiffel Tower was built. The win defied racial bias and cemented the painter’s place in what might still be regarded as the art capital of the world.


The painter’s name was Juan Luna, and his award-winning painting was entitled Hymen, oh Hyménée! or Boda Romana (Roman Wedding). With oil on canvas, it depicts a bride being showered with flowers by women, children, and men in a lavish atrium. It has been described as ethereal, joyous, and majestic

After the fair, the renowned Luna kept the painting in his private collection, where it remained until his death in 1899. Its whereabouts became unknown after that. Images of the painting could be found in books and lithographs of it were even sold at auctions, but nobody could see it in its entirety again. Until one day in 2014, when an art dealer was invited to a noble European family’s home. There, the art dealer saw, and purchased, the fabled painting. 

Just last month, and for the first time in 134 years, Luna’s long-lost Hymen, oh Hyménée! was unveiled to the public, in a museum in Manila, Philippines. 

“A painting of love”

Luna is considered one of the greatest painters in Philippine history. He left the country to study Fine Arts in Madrid, won critical acclaim and awards around Europe, and was even commissioned by the King of Spain to create La Batalla de Lepanto (The Battle of Lepanto, a large canvas of ships at war). Many of his paintings were decidedly dark, depicting tragic moments in history such as the death of Cleopatra (La Muerte de Cleopatra) and defeated gladiators thrown in the basement of the Roman Colosseum after combat (Spoliarium).

“But this painting, the Hymen, oh Hyménée!, is a painting of happiness, it’s a painting of love,” Jaime Ponce de Leon, the man who found the long-lost piece, told VICE.


Luna worked on the painting while he and his wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera, were honeymooning in the halcyon years of his career. According to Ponce de Leon, the painting is Luna putting forth all the best things happening to him at the time. But that happiness did not last. Luna and Pardo de Tavera’s relationship ended in his murdering her, along with her mother, in a fit of jealous rage. 

According to Ponce de Leon, the piece is filled with symbolism. There is an almost-missable turtle, for example, which some take to be the artist’s depiction of himself in his own wedding. 

“There’s still much information to decode from the painting,” said Ponce de Leon. The title, for instance, invites plenty of interpretation. Some say it’s a shoddy French translation of “marriage or wedding.” Others think it refers to Hymenaeus, the ancient Greek god of marriage, who is said to have been invoked by chant and song, as a bride made her way to the bridegroom’s chamber. “I’m sure the painting will still say so much stories in the course of many years,” Ponce de Leon said.

When the painting disappeared after Luna’s death, nobody could be sure it was in good condition. Some posited that the family of his wife had burned it after Luna killed her and her mother. Others figured it was destroyed in one of the wars. In any case, it had disappeared, and people only knew what it looked like from monochromatic prints or hand-colored lithographs. 


A matter of luck and timing 

Ponce de Leon is the founder and director of León Gallery, a fine art gallery and auction house in Manila, Philippines. He’s known as a dealer and auctioneer with a specialty in Philippine art. He had always known of Hymen, oh Hyménée!. But in 2007, when prolific collector Eleuterio “Teyet” Pascual told Ponce de Leon that he had seen the painting himself some 30 years earlier, the gallery founder became certain the painting still existed in good condition.

“He described to me the beauty of this painting,” said Ponce de Leon. “But he never told me where it was.”

At the time, Ponce de Leon was just beginning his career and did not see the need to press Pascual, who passed away in 2012, for the exact whereabouts of the painting. The idea of actually finding the painting remained “far-off” in Ponce de Leon’s mind. But retracing Luna’s steps, he befriended as many noble and “titled” families around Madrid and Paris as he could. When the opportunities presented themselves, he told them of his interest in the painting. It was by meeting people and telling them of his search that he thinks the “seeds were planted” for the painting’s eventual repatriation. 

One day in 2014, he received a call from an old friend, calling on behalf of a noble family. The friend invited him to be at the family’s doorstep, somewhere in Europe, at ten in the morning, leaving no clues about what he might find in the home. Ponce de Leon would not reveal where the house was or who owned it, just that he found himself outside what he described as a beautiful home at the agreed time.


“After being brought to the drawing room and exchanging a few pleasantries with the master of the house, he signaled to his butler to open the drapes,” Ponce de Leon said. Little by little, the long-lost Hymen, oh Hyménée! was revealed. “Wow, I could not believe it.”

“It needed a bang, a bonanza”  

The art world, of course, is no stranger to forgeries and scams. In 1995, for example, the Knoedler Gallery, the oldest gallery in New York, under the direction of Ann Freedman, purchased over 60 canvases allegedly made by artists like Rothko and Pollock that were eventually proven to be fakes

But Ponce de Leon told a local news outlet that the surviving documents for Hymen, oh Hyménée! confirmed its authenticity. The craquelure of the painting, he said, is consistent with its age. It took three years to authenticate the connoisseurship and provenance and complete the deal.  

“For collectors and people in the trade, connoisseurship plays a very important role. You feel the work. You see its colors. You see the Luna impasto and bravura. You check all the boxes and make sure nothing is fishy,” Ponce de Leon said


An avid collector, it was the father of the family who had acquired the painting sometime around the 1920s and 1930s, Ponce de Leon said. It is difficult to ascertain, he added, if the family was the painting’s first owner after Luna’s death. But it was likely Andrés Luna, Luna’s son, who sold it, as he was studying in Barcelona and traveling around Madrid and Paris at the time.

Ponce de Leon would not disclose how much it cost, but said that the painting is the single most expensive piece of art he has ever purchased for his collection. “When you pay high for priceless, you’re getting it cheap,” he said.

The painting was hidden in Ponce de Leon’s storage for six years before it was put on display. Even the employees of his gallery did not know what it was. “I just didn’t want to open it and put it on my wall, and have people see it, not knowing what it was. I always felt that It needed a bang, a bonanza,” he said.

Late last year, representatives of the Ayala Museum in Manila, Philippines, approached Ponce de Leon with the idea of a fundraising event for a foundation. They had no idea he had the long-lost Luna in his possession. Instead of finding a bunch of other pieces to display or sell, Ponce de Leon felt it was time to unveil the painting.

Hymen, oh Hyménée! was unveiled to the public, for the first time in over a century, on June 12 of this year, the Philippines’ 125th Independence Day.

“We Filipinos know that Luna is the greatest Filipino artist. Perhaps not only from the 19th century but in our history. He gave us so much honor. He got so much acclaim for his virtuosity and mastery of painting that every Filipino is proud of his accomplishment. I think it is always an honor, a great privilege to own a Luna, and to see Luna in our museums is always something big,” said Ponce de Leon. 

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