This piece is highly compositionally complex, taking on the veneer of a collage by mixing motifs and styles of depiction. It places Archangel Michael inside a birdcage punctured with voids, his form trampling on a man, superimposed with the images including that of a serpent, a tiger, a dinosaur skeleton and a leopard.
This depiction of Archangel Michael bears close resemblance to Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni’s Archangel Michael (1636) in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, down to the late Roman military cloak and cuirass. In the New Testament, Michael is a savior who led God’s armies against Satan’s forces, triumphing during the war in heaven where he trampled over Satan. In Michael’s left hand, he holds an orange and black serpent, as if he is bringing salvation in the image of Moses. However in this instance, Michael is depicted with cherubic features typical of an Old Masters style (round cheeks, a high nose and a sculpted physique) and is given an additional accessory: a hat adorned with feathers, typically worn by Spanish colonizers who reigned over the Philippines. The innocence of his features is deceptive; Michael, as a figurehead of the Catholic Church, is merely a tool of the colonizers to further their colonial ambitions, further exposed in the angry red of his right wing.
The only other human figure in the painting is at Michael’s feet: in the traditional depiction of this image, this is where Satan would have been shown in defeat. This figure is rendered in great detail: the veins of a neck as if shouting in fear or defiance, a body contorted in defense, hands raised and fingers splayed as if in great pain. Though one could presumably read this as a Satan, one could also see this as a comment on colonial depictions of defeated natives. A face is never revealed to us; merely the vestiges of a fading body and wild limbs are shown. Perhaps, this could be interpreted as a critique of colonial portrayals of the Philippine “natives”: a refusal to acknowledge identity while ravaging rampage in the name of religion to both body and mind.
The cage in this painting serves as a form of violence itself, not only in its captivity but also in its erasure. All the figures in this painting are routinely pierced by the bars of the cage, for example, the figure on the ground of the cage looks as if his farm is being speared by a vertical bar. Ventura also chooses to paint white voids in some of the holes of the cage, which at points act to dismember bodies into parts, further creating a sense of discord and distance.
We could perhaps think of this cage as a metaphor for the Filipino mind, in constant negotiation between erasures of memory and its layered colonial past. The performativity and complexity of Ronald Ventura’s Voids and Cages (Archetypes), is a profound study of the artist’s personal and cultural narrative--a visually commanding piece that attests to Ventura’s conceptual and technical genius.
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