Monastery and Site of The Escurial: Castilian Architecture At Its Finest

In the southern foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, within sight of the Spanish capital but prudently removed from it, stands the mystical dream of a solitary man.

Monastery and Site of The Escurial, one of many architectural relics in Spain

King Philip II, melancholic, majestic, and austere, always loved this place, healthy and quiet, where he had founded a monastery that would eventually become his refuge from a world he disliked more and more every day.

Still today, his memory seems to inhabit these rooms where he lived his happiest moments, surrounded by his collections of books and paintings and devoted to his passions, and where he finally died in 1598, perhaps foreseeing the immediate crumbling of the empire he had inherited from his father and the rapid decline of his dynasty. 

King Phillip II of Spain

The Man In Black

It cannot be said that history has treated Philip II well. The sinister figure of a cruel and fanatical man, always dressed in black, has crossed the centuries with no other counterpart than his glorification as a champion of Christianity against Turks and heretics, which for the case comes to the same thing. In reality, the "prudent" king was an introverted, official, and cultured man, overwhelmed throughout his life by the double burden of an empire too large and a father too brilliant. Charles I was a born winner: in war, in diplomacy, in the salons. His son, who bore no resemblance to him, tried desperately to live up to him and to be worthy of his inheritance, but all he succeeded in doing was to accumulate a sense of failure. Eventually, he found in religion some of the security he lacked, and he gave himself to it without reserve.

The Spanish Empire under Phillip II

He became convinced that he was fulfilling a divine mission, which allowed him to have blind confidence in his own decisions, but also led him to make such dramatic mistakes and commit such enormous injustices as only a man invested with almost unlimited powers can commit.

There was no lack, however, of military successes throughout his reign. The first took place on August 10, 557, feast of St. Lawrence, with the defeat of the French army near St. Quentin, in Picardy. Philip II was then 30 years old and had been on the throne for one year. Upon his return to Spain, he began to take the necessary steps for the foundation of a monastery dedicated to St. Lawrence, in gratitude for the victory but also with the idea of building a pantheon worthy of his father, who had just died, and in which all the Spanish kings could be buried from then on.

A multidisciplinary team was charged with choosing the site based on a complex combination of factors. In 1561 they finally decided on the site of The Escurial, located at an altitude of 1050 m above sea level and 50 km from Madrid, the city that the king had designated a year earlier as the definitive seat of the court. 

Painting of The Escurial during its construction (Southern Facade)

The Grill of San Lorenzo

From his adolescence, Philip II showed a great interest in architecture, an interest that led him, as crown prince, to take charge of the royal building program.

However, of all the works he promoted before and during his reign, only the Monastery of The Escurial has survived to the present day practically without any modification of the initial project, making it the most paradigmatic building of this period of the Spanish Renaissance characterized by the predominance of a sober but monumental classicism, in keeping with the ideals of the Counter-Reformation that the monarch had fervently made his own.

Juan Bautista de Toledo, appointed by Philip II architect of the royal works in 1559, was in charge of drawing a first project that would later be simplified, although maintaining the general idea and the curious reticular plan, which would represent, according to a deep-rooted tradition that nevertheless has not been able to be proved reliably, the grill of the martyrdom of San Lorenzo.

The Escurial's Plan Was Supposed To Represent Saint Lawrence's Grill

The complex was to serve as a monastery for Hieronymite monks, a palace, a college for nobles, and a royal pantheon, so its dimensions were colossal.

At the express wish of the monarch, who at all times closely supervised the works, the enclosure was built in the Flanders style, with red brick and slate roofs with mansards and sharp spires, a style that from then on would become widespread in Spain throughout the seventeenth century. On the death of Toledo, in 1567, Juan de Herrera, until then his collaborator, took over the project and made it his own to such an extent that he gave his name to the Herrerian style, which has in The Escurial its first and main work.

The monastery's main feature is its perfect symmetry

The new architect introduced some modifications to the original project, such as the suppression of some towers and all superfluous decoration, resulting in the purity of lines characteristic of this style. Under its apparent simplicity, the building reveals a complex structure, in which each element has been carefully arranged to contribute to the harmony of the whole, based on perfect symmetry and a studied progression of heights that produces the effect of a pyramid crowned by the dome of the basilica. 

The King's Collections

Thus, the visitor's attention is focused at first glance on the temple, conceived, along with the library, as the main element of the monastery.

Major Altarpiece of Saint Lawrence of The Escurial

It was also the room that underwent the most modifications with respect to the original project, for which reason its ultimate responsibility is attributed to Juan de Herrera. Its monumental proportions, accentuated by the lack of ornamentation, culminate in the great dome on a drum that covers the transept. The main altar is presided over by an altarpiece designed by Herrera, whose iconographic program, centered on the martyrdom of San Lorenzo and on the cycle of redemption that constitutes the leitmotiv of the whole temple, is developed by means of sculptures by Leone and Pompeyo Leoni and canvases by Zuccaro and Tibaldi. On either side are the tombs of the founding monarch and his father, Charles I, decorated with sculptures by Pompeyo Leoni in gilded bronze and enamel, while the crypt houses the royal pantheon, in which rest, with very few exceptions, all the kings of Spain after Philip II.

The splendid Pantheum where Charles I, Phillip II, Phillip III, and Phillip IV are buried

The splendid library, once one of the largest in Europe, and the royal picture gallery bear witness to the insatiable intellectual curiosity of this monarch. The library is a long gallery that links the convent area with the college, thus becoming a symbol of Philip II's taste for the union between the sacred and the profane. It is a work of art in itself, with its long barrel vault decorated with paintings by Italian artists depicting allegories of the liberal arts, but the most amazing are its contents.

It contains unique pieces such as the "Cantigas" of Alfonso X the Wise, several very Mozarabic beatos, and the handwritten works of St. Teresa of Jesus, preserved largely thanks to Philip II's admiration for the Saint, whom he always defended from accusations of heterodoxy.

The bed where Phillip II died in 1598

In its day, the royal art gallery was equally admirable, but today the most valuable paintings have been transferred to the Prado Museum. Nevertheless, a collection including works by Dürer, Bosch, El Greco, and Titian, among others, is preserved. However, one of the rooms favored by many visitors to the monastery is the bedchamber in which King Philip II died in 1598. Perhaps because this small room is the true heart of the immense building, and because it is astonishing to imagine that these four humble walls once housed the supreme power of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.

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