Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Sisa: Examining a mother’s madness—today and now

One of the most riveting paintings at León Gallery Magnificent September Auction is a haunting portrait by Amorsolo

Sisa, by Fernando Amorsolo, from the last chapter of the Noli Me Tangere, depicts Sisa with her son Basilio and the mysterious Elias.

The Philippine National Hero, Jose Rizal

One of the most riveting paintings at the León Gallery Magnificent September Auction is a haunting portrait of Sisa in the company of two of Rizal’s most eloquent characters from the Noli Me Tangere, her son Basilio and the mysterious Elias. It is by Fernando Amorsolo, the maestro himself of Philippine scenes, and there is still time to see it at the ongoing preview before it is auctioned off on Saturday, September 9, at 2 p.m.

Fernando Amorsolo in his studio.

Madness has always been an important theme in literature. Women afflicted with this condition came into vogue in modern times with the Gothic literature fashion at the end of 18th century. They tended to be women who were enveloped in an aura of mystery — often a misfortune of which the reader was made aware well into the novel — and the cause of the madness was often attributed to a series of tragedies befalling the family or to a painful disappointment in love. Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels abound with madwomen who roamed the woods or lived locked in a cell, talking to themselves, speaking painful truths to those who approached them or singing nonsensical rhymes.

Subsequently, romantic literature created in the 19th century a long series of women who fell into the arms of madness. In Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Brontë’s popular novel, it is Bertha Mason, a madwoman confined in a keep, who ultimately destroys the promising love story of the main characters. Madness was often portrayed not so much as a mental illness that isolated the sufferer from the society in which she lived, but rather as the inevitable consequence of an excess of lucidity, a capacity for comprehension that the brain was unable to withstand.

Among the 19th century paintings that deal with the theme of madness, Ophelia (1852), now in Tate Britain (London), by the British painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896), is particularly well known. Directly inspired by the Shakespearean character of Hamlet (1601?), Ophelia, a noble, faithful and innocent woman, is in love with Hamlet and saves him from the suicide he is considering after discovering that his uncle has murdered his father to marry his mother, the Queen of Denmark. Hamlet reciprocates Ophelia’s love but must flee the country to save his life. Ophelia is driven mad by his absence and dies by drowning. Millais’ famous painting portrays Ophelia’s corpse floating in a river. Ophelia is neatly dressed, the flowers she was picking in the field are still in her hands and her face expresses, with her eyes open and her sensual mouth half-open, an estate of absolute serenity. For the romantics, nothing could depict more beauty than a beautiful woman cut down in the prime of her life.

There is no doubt that José Rizal, an inveterate reader—let’s remember that in one of his letters he confesses that he prefers to spend his money on books rather than on food— must have been inspired by some of the female characters of 19th century literature and art to create a character as striking as Sisa. Would he have seen Millais’ Ophelia in person during his fruitful stay to London?

The original cover of the Noli Me Tangere

Although Sisa’s madness may have had a romantic origin, Rizal preferred to give it a new meaning by assigning it a greater dimension of social denunciation. Sisa is one of those secondary characters whose tragic story could have been used to write an entire realist novel. However, Rizal decided that this memorable character would be one of the many that would form the human background behind the misadventures of Crisóstomo Ibarra.

As is well known, Sisa was a good woman who sacrificed herself to raise her two sons, Crispín and Basilio, despite the neglect and outright abuse they received from their father. Submissive, hard-working, beloved and much appreciated by her neighbors, she tried to bear with the utmost dignity the drama of sharing her life with a selfish and extremely violent husband. When she found out that one of her sons was wanted by the Guardia Civil for theft, she went to the parish to look for him, but did not find him, and when she arrived home, she discovered that the Guardia Civil had taken her other son in order to discover the whereabouts of the first one.

The Noli’s Chapter XXI, Historia de una madre—History of a mother—is the chapter that narrates in detail how Sisa falls into the abyss of despair. Although in other chapters of the novel Rizal opts for a sarcastic tone, this chapter shows a deliberate change of style to describe the maelstrom of maternal suffering. What neither poverty nor a bad husband had achieved, two civil guards do by publicly arresting her and taking her to the barracks in full view of everyone: A final humiliation. After being arbitrarily released, she returns home, but Sisa’s mind will no longer be the same. She has been stripped of all humanity.

Rizal in his thirties.

Let us listen to the words of the genius of Calamba: “She still continued to wander from place to place, screaming or howling strange sounds; whoever heard her would have been afraid: her voice had a strange timbre, such as the human larynx does not usually produce […] Perhaps so much suffering would not be up to the measure of weak human resistance and Providence would then intervene with its sweet lenitive: oblivion. The fact is that the next day, Sisa wandered smiling, singing or talking with all the beings of nature.”

Critics have usually interpreted Sisa’s case as an example of the crimes of the friars—the accusation of theft leveled against Sisa’s children was clearly false—as well as of the cruel arbitrariness of the forces of order: Sisa was arrested with impunity, her life at the mercy of two careless and uncaring soldiers and then suddenly acquitted by the simple will of the high command. Sisa is a virtuous and unjustly mistreated woman to whom the absurd colonial administration ends up giving the coup de grace.

Jose Rizal in profile

But Sisa is also an unforgettable character who has inspired two films — in 1999 and 2009 — because, beyond social criticism, she is the personification of so many Filipino mothers who direct all their efforts, selfishly renounce their life aspirations and try to overcome all difficulties to provide a future for their children. Her madness is not the interesting aesthetic feature of so many romantic heroines, but the direct consequence of colonial arbitrariness and an example of the sacrificial capacity of so many Filipino mothers.

In the glow of the lamplight in Amorsolo’s indubitable work of art, we clearly see all of this.

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