Blood Oath: Juan Luna Shows the Danger of Sharing Drinks Distilled from Biohazardous Material

- after Juan Luna's "El Pacto de Sangre"
("The Blood Compact"), 1886

A year after he finishes the famous
mural showing two dead gladiators
being dragged from arena to spoliarium,
he paints a few more big-ass
canvasses. Actually he needs to paint
only one in return for a scholarship
that pays for his studies and the cost
of living while in Rome and Madrid.
But like almost all expatriates or immigrants,
even with gold medals won from arts expos,
he feels the need to do more; be extra. And so
in this painting, "El Pacto de Sangre,"
once more the focus is on history—canvas which
by nature shows how miniature the scale of
human effort against the long drag of time.
The artist understands: it's no accident
Datu Sikatuna is the only one with his back
to the viewer— though he has the rippling,
tattooed, muscular arms of a warrior, a gold-
threaded vest fused of carabao horn and chain
mail, a dagger tipped with precious metal. It's
1556: the scene is meant to illustrate
the triumph of diplomacy: according to
the conquistadores, the skin on each man's
chest was lanced to draw a little blood for mixing
with water or wine. Drinking this cocktail
symbolizes alliance akin to blood brotherhood:
each one supposedly rendered equal to the other.
But the scene, generous with shadow, instinctively
raises questions about that ideal. The knuckles
of the indio's right hand tense above the blade.
Both hold a cup filled with mingled fluids.
Who is vessel, vassal? In 342 years, more ships burn
in the bay. The Datu's descendants are sold as
easily as a cup is passed from one hand to another.

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