The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is one of the best reflections of the ideological and cultural aspirations of Spain’s “Golden Age”, as expressed through the unique blend of Italian and Flemish artistic styles favoured by Phillip II.
Grouping many functions in a single building, it began as a monastery for monks of the Order of San Jerome, whose church would become the final resting place of the Emperor Charles V, his wife and his son Phillip II, and a long line of relatives and successors, where friars would offer up endless payers for the salvation of royal souls. There is also a palace for accommodating the king, as patron of the foundation, and his retinue. The college and seminary complete the religious function of the Monastery and the Library caters for these three centres. The layout of the complex has, to a certain extent, remained unchanged. Charles V played a decisive role in the foundation of this Royal Site through the great influence he had over his son, the example he set by passing his last few years here among the Hieronymite monks and through the need to provide him with a fitting burial place.
Once he decided to found the Monastery, in 1558 Phillip II began to look for a suitable site, which he found at the end of 1562. The construction work began soon after, according to the plans of Juan Bautista de Toledo. By 1571, the monastery was more or less finished; in 1572 work began on the “King’s House” and in 1574 on the Basilica, which was finished in 1586 and consecrated in 1595. This date could be said to mark the end of the entire project, although the last stone was not laid until 1584 and decorative work continued for a number of years. All construction was meticulously supervised by the King. This site should not be considered the work of a single person, but rather the fruit of a complex collaboration between two master architects: Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera. The first, who had worked in the Vatican as an assistant to Michelangelo, was responsible for the general floor plan and most of the design. During the period in which the second was in charge of the works, the majority of the complex was completed, including many parts that had not been designed by Toledo. Considering the significant input from other Spanish and Italian architects towards the final definitive results, El Escorial is an incredibly unique reflection of the character of Phillip II.
Highlights within the El Escorial complex include the Royal Library and the Pantheons for both Kings and Infantes.
Phillip II would stay at this palace from Easter through to the autumn, especially towards the end of his life; whereas his successors would generally visit for just two or three weeks in November. Phillip V tended to spend the whole autumn up to the beginning of December at El Escorial, a custom upheld by the rest of the Bourbons until Isabella II.
When it was built, the Monastery was an isolated spot in the middle of the countryside with just a few buildings making up the estate: the two casas de oficios and the Compaña. However, Charles III ordered the creation of a small courtly city, the architect of which was Juan de Villanueva, who, building on his classical Italian training fully embraced the nationalist spirit that El Escorial came to embody during the Age of Enlightenment in Spain. Highlights of his work include the Casa de Infantes and the Casa del Ministro de Estado.
Monastery and casita gardens
Two sides of the Monastery –the north and west– are flanked by a wide open courtyard known as La Lonja, and the other two by terrace gardens in the square Italian style lined with box hedges. The Garden of the Friars extends along the entire south facade and part of the eastern facade, under the windows of the friars’ cells. Beyond this garden, at a lower level, are the vegetable gardens with a similar square layout.
The east terrace of the building is home to yet more enclosed gardens, similar to the Garden of the Friars but separated from this by niched walls as they were designed for royal persons. Surrounding the King’s House, they make for some rather pleasant views from the Palace.
Sections of the building
The main sections in which you can divide the Real site are:
Courtyard of the Kings
The first thing you find upon arriving to El Escorial is the main façade. This has three doors: the middle one leads to the Courtyard of the Kings (Patio de los Reyes) and the side ones lead to a school and the other to a monastery. On the façade there is a niche where the image of a saint has been placed. The courtyard is an enclosure that owes its name to the statues of the Kings of Judah that adorn the façade of the Basílica, located at the back, from which you can access from the courtyard. This spectacular basilica has a floor in the shape of a Greek cross and an enormous cupola inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The naves are covered with canyon vaults decorated with frescoes by Luca Giordano. The large chapel is one of the highlights in the basilica, presided by steps of red marble. Its main altarpiece is 30 meters high and divided in compartments of different sizes where are find bronze sculptures and canvas authored by Tibaldi, Zuccari or Leoni. In the Capitulary and the Sacristy Rooms, painting such as Joseph’s Coat by Velázquez, The Last Supper by Titian, or The Adoration of the Sacred Host by Charles II by Claudio Coello are on exhibit.
Under the royal chapel of the Basilica is the Royal Pantheon. This is the place of burial for the kings of Spain. It is an octagonal Baroque mausoleum made of marble where all of the Spanish monarchs since Charles I have been buried, with the exception of Philip V, Ferdinand of Savoy, and Amadeus of Savoy. The remains of Juan de Borbon, father of King Juan Carlos I of Spain, also rest in this pantheon despite the fact that he never became king himself. The enclosure is presided over by an altar of veined marble, and the sarcaphogi are bronze and marble. also find the Pantheon of the Princes, where the bodies of the queens who did not have a crowned succession and the princes and princesses were laid to rest. This part was built in the nineteenth century.
After the basilica is the Courtyard of the Evangelists. This is a gardened patio in whose center rises a magnificent pavilion by Juan de Herrera in which you can find sculptures of the Evangelists. Around the courtyard are the galleries of the main cloister, decorated with frescoes in which scenes from the history of the Redemption are represented. In the East gallery, you find the splendid main staircase with a fresco-decorated vaulted ceiling depicting The glory of the Spanish monarchy.
Next is the Palace of the Austrians (Palacio de los Austrias), also known as the House of the King (Casa del Rey), which is found behind the presbytery of the basilica. The outbuildings of this palace are distributed around the Courtyard of the Fountainheads (patio de los Mascarones), of Italian style. Inside the House of the King are the Sala de las Batallas (Hall of Battles), which contains frescoes of the battles of San Quintín and Higueruela, among others. The next building contains the rooms of Philip II and of the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia. Another outbuilding is that of Alcoba del Rey, housing the bed in which Philip II died.
Philip II donated his personal collection of documents to the building, and also undertook the acquisition of the finest libraries and works of Spain and foreign countries. It was planned by Juan de Herrera, who also designed the library’s shelves; the frescoes on the vaulted ceilings were painted by Pellegrino Tibaldi. The library’s collection consists of more than 40,000 volumes, located in a great hall fifty-four meters in length, nine meters wide and ten meters tall with marble floors and beautifully carved wood shelves. The library includes many important illuminated manuscripts, such as the Ottonian Golden Gospels of Henry III (1045-46).
Benito Arias Montano produced the initial catalog for the library, selecting many of the most important volumes. In 1616 he was granted the privilege of receiving a copy of every published work, though there is no evidence that he ever took advantage of this right.
The vault of the library’s ceiling is decorated with frescoes depicting the seven liberal arts:Rhetoric, Dialectic, Music, Grammar, Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy.
During the reign of Phillip II, there was an entire room dedicated to ancient manuscripts in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Aramaic, Italian, French and Spanish. This included books confiscated during the Inquisition. There were approximately 1,800 Arabic titles, most of them obtained during the expulsion of Muslims from Islamic Iberia. Since the library was protected from inquisitional oversight, it preserved many prohibited books that were thought to be expunged. The only known copy of the Kitab al-I’tibar, a 12th-century Syrian autobiography, was discovered there in the 19th century. By 1602, the library had a large cartographic collection and over 150 mathematical instruments.
The basilica of San Lorenzo el Real, the central building in the El Escorial complex, was originally designed, like most of the late Gothic cathedrals of western Europe, to take the form of a Latin cross. As such, it has a long nave on the west-east axis intersected by a pair of shorter transepts, one to the north and one directly opposite, to the south, about three-quarters of the way between the west entrance and the high altar. This plan was modified by Juan de Herrera to that of a Greek cross, a form with all four arms of equal length. Coincident with this shift in approach, the bell towers at the western end of the church were somewhat reduced in size and the small half-dome intended to stand over the altar was replaced with a full circular dome over the center of the church, where the four arms of the Greek cross meet.
Clearly Juan Bautista de Toledo’s experience with the dome of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome influenced the design of the dome of San Lorenzo el Real at El Escorial. However, the Roman dome is supported by ranks of tapered Corinthian columns, with their extravagant capitals of acanthus leaves and their elaborately fluted shafts, while the dome at El Escorial, soaring nearly one hundred metres into the air, is supported by four heavy granite piers connected by simple Romanesque arches and decorated by simple Doric pilasters, plain, solid, and largely unprepossessing. It would not be a flight of fancy to interpret St. Peter’s as the quintessential expression of Baroque sensuality and the basilica at El Escorial as a statement of the stark rigidity and grim purposefulness of the Inquisition, the two sides of the Counter-Reformation.
The most highly decorated part of the church is the area surrounding the high altar. Behind the altar is a three-tiered reredos, made of red granite and jasper, nearly twenty-eight metres tall, adorned with gilded bronze statuary by Leone Leoni, and three sets of religious paintings commissioned by Philip II. To either side are gilded life-size bronzes of the kneeling family groups of Charles and Philip, also by Leoni with help from his son Pompeo. In a shallow niche at the center of the lowest level is a repository for the physical elements of the communion ceremony, a so-called “House of the Sacrament”, designed by Juan de Herrera in jasper and bronze.
To decorate the reredos, or altar screens, the king’s preferences were Michelangelo or Titian, but both of these giants were already more than eighty years old and in frail health. Consequently, Philip consulted his foreign ambassadors for recommendations, and the result was a lengthy parade of the lesser European artists of that time, all swanning through the construction site at El Escorial seeking the king’s favor.
Palace of Philip II
Situated next to the main altar of the Basilica, the residence of King Philip II is made up of a series of austerely decorated rooms. It features a window from which the king could observe mass from his bed when incapacitated by the gout that afflicted him.
Hall of Battles
Fresco paintings here depict the most important Spanish military victories. These include a medieval victory over the Moors, as well as several of Philip’s campaigns against the French.
Pantheon of the Kings
This chamber consists of twenty-six marble sepulchers containing the remains of the kings and queens regnant (the only queen regnant since Philip II being Isabella II), of the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties from Charles I to the present, except for Philip V and Ferdinand VI. The sepulchers also contain the remains of royal consorts who were parents of monarchs. The only king consort is Francis of Asis de Bourbon, husband of Queen Isabella II and father of Alfonso XII. The most recent monarch interred in the pantheon is King Alfonso XIII, removed there from the Church of Santa Maria in Monserrato,Rome in 1980. The remains of Alfonso XIII’s wife, Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg were interred in the pantheon in 2011.
The remains of Alfonso XIII’s third son Juan, Count of Barcelona and daughter-in-law Maria de las Mercedes (the father and mother of the former king Juan Carlos I), lie at a prepared place called a pudridero, or decaying chamber, awaiting interment in the Pantheon of the Kings. With the interment of these remains, all the sepulchers in the pantheon will be filled. No decision has yet been announced as to the final resting place of now-retired Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía, or for Felipe VI, the present king.
There are two pudrideros at El Escorial, one for the Pantheon of the Kings and the other for the Pantheon of the Princes. These can only be visited by monks from the Monastery. In these rooms, the remains of the deceased are placed in a small leaden urn, which in turn will be placed in the marble sepulchers of the appropriate pantheon after the passage of fifty years, the estimated time necessary for the complete decomposition of the bodies.
The interment of the remains of Queen Victoria Eugenie and the Count and Countess of Barcelona in the Royal Pantheon will each constitute an exception to tradition. First, Victoria Eugenie, although the wife of a king, was never the mother of a king in the strict sense. Secondly, the Count of Barcelona never reigned as king, although he was head of the Spanish Royal Family between the renunciation of his father’s rights on 14 January 1941 and his renunciation of his own rights in favour of his son, Juan Carlos I on 14 May 1977. Thirdly, the Countess of Barcelona was the mother of a king but not the wife of a king. However, some consider the Count of Barcelona to have been de jure King of Spain from 1941 – 1977, which in turn would make him, his mother, Queen Victoria Eugenie and his wife, the Countess of Barcelona eligible for interment in the Pantheon of Kings.
There has already been one exception to tradition: Elisabeth of Bourbon is for the moment the only queen in the pantheon who has not been mother to a king. That is because her only son, the presumed heir to the throne, died after her but before he could become king.
The walls of polished Toledo marble are ornamented in gold-plated bronze. All of the wood used in El Escorial comes from the ancient forests of Sagua La Grande, on the so-called Golden Coast of Cuba.
Pantheon of the Princes
Completed in 1888, this is the final resting place of princes, princesses and consorts other than the parents of monarchs. With floors and ceiling of white marble, the tomb of Prince John of Austria is especially notable. Currently, thirty-seven of the sixty available niches are filled.