El Escorial. History, Content, Significance.

El Escorial.
The Escorial is an immense monastery and mausoleum located about 52 kilometres (32 miles) north west of Madrid. But it is more than just a monastery or mausoleum. It is in fact a royal monastery and  the most outstanding example of Renaissance architecture in Spain. It contains an exceptional library and a remarkable wealth of paintings, frescoes and sculptures, so much so that it would require several posts/pages to do them justice. What we want to do here is introduce you briefly to the history and configuration and content of the Escorial, and then consider the significance of the building in the context of the religious mood in Spain in the second half of the 16th century.

The Escorial from the Air. Regal Splendour.

The Escorial was commissioned by Philip II in 1563 to commemorate the defeat of the French at the Battle of St Quentin on the day of San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence, August 10, 1557). Important, too, it fulfilled the wishes of Philip’s father, Charles V, for the construction of a royal mausoleum/ burial place. For Philip, who admired and was constantly measuring himself against his father, only a building of imperial grandeur would be a fitting resting place for the greatest monarch that Europe had seen since antiquity.

The full name of the monastery is Monasterio Real de San Lorenzo de El Escorial and was entrusted by Philip to the Hieronymite order of monks (i. e. followers of St Jerome). Designed by Juan de Toledo (who had studied in Rome and Naples), work began in April 1563. After Juan de Toledo’s death in 1567, construction was taken over by his assistant, Juan de Herrera, with whom the building is now associated (although Philip frequently made suggestions and even supervised occasionally!). Astonishingly, the Escorial was completed in only 21 years (1563-84), with some 1,500 workmen involved in the construction. The last stone was placed in the presence of Philip and his children in September 1584.

Fire damaged the monastery and destroyed some of its contents in 1671. In 1808, it was plundered by Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army and four years later was occupied by English and Portuguese troops as the French retreated. Since 1885, it has been occupied by the Order of St. Augustine, although it is now administered by Spain’s Patrimonio Nacional. In 1984, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Monastery’s exterior measures 207 x 161 metres (676 x 528 ft) long, 20 metres (66 ft) high with 55 metre (180 ft) high towers at each corner. Its building material is granite (from the nearby Sierra de Guadarrama) with slate roofs. Its almost square ground plan supposedly represented the shape of an iron grill on which the Spanish-born St Lawrence is said to have been martyred in Rome.

Silhouetted against the Guadarrama Mountains to the north and east and facing the Meseta to the west and south, the monastery is an imposing sight, totally dominating the nearby village of Escorial. Its exterior, constructed with mathematical precision, is extremely austere, especially when compared with the facades of Charles V’s palace in the Alhambra, Granada. Here there is no rusticated stonework, there are no pilasters, and the rows of seemingly endless windows are devoid of frames and pediments, so common in classical architecture.

The Escorial. South Façade.

Against this severe front, the main entrance on the west façade stands out despite its relative simplicity: a plain doorway edged by 8 imposing half columns with niches and windows at the lower level. Above, four half columns, topped by a large pediment, flank a statue of St. Lawrence and beneath him the Hapsburg coat-of -arms.

The Escorial. Main Entrance on the West Façade.

The severity of the façades reflects Philip II’s public persona very well: distant, stern, reserved. Perhaps the best summary of the monastery comes from Philip himself in his succinct instructions to the architect, Herrera: “Above all, do not forget what I have told you: simplicity in the construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation” (Blue Bk. 303). This description can be applied also to the internal architecture with fluted pilasters about the only decorative element in what is classical simplicity of solid pillars, perfect semicircular arches (of which there are many) and vaulted ceilings.

Inside, the Church or Basilica is the main building. Around the chancel/altar and choir (capilla mayor) is Philip’s palace and to the left of the Church is the 18th-century royal palace (or apartments) commissioned by Charles III and IV in the 18th century. Beneath the Basilica lies the Royal Pantheon where almost all Spanish kings from Charles V are buried. The spectacularly vaulted library boasts an impressive collection of manuscripts (including those in Arabic, Hebrew and Latin) and rare editions protected on bookshelves made of rare woods.

The Escorial.The Library.

Other rooms include the chapter houses (where monks met), two new museums (added in1963 to accommodate many of the paintings), and a beautifully vaulted sacristy where church vestments are kept, where monks/ priests prepare for service and where vessels used for mass are stored.

According to a guide to the monastery, there are “16 courtyards, 11 cisterns, 88 fountains, 13 oratories (small chapels), 7 refectories, 9 towers, 15 cloisters, 86 staircases … 1,200 doors and 2,673 windows” (Ruiz Alcón, Escorial 112b).

The Significance of the Escorial.
The Escorial serves as an excellent contrast to the palace that Philip’s father, Charles V, had built in the Alhambra (begun in 1526). Charles’s palace was primarily a royal residence and a political statement affirming the presence of the Peninsula’s two major –and recently united– kingdoms of Castile and Aragón in what had long been a Muslim kingdom. Although Charles was devout and defended the Catholic Church against Protestantism in northern Europe and Islam in the Mediterranean, his palace reflected the humanistic rather than the religious spirit of the time.

It was constructed to greet and impress visiting dignitaries and its single chapel occupied a relatively small space within it. Its bold design was revolutionary for the time and a measure of the spirit of optimism following the unification of Castile and Aragón, the conquest of the  Muslim kingdom of Granada, the discovery of an exciting new world across the Atlantic and the country’s significant importance in Europe thanks to the lands Charles brought with him. [Admittedly, there was opposition initially when Charles arrived in Spain accompanied by Flemish advisors whom he placed in positions of power, but this was quite soon overcome.]

Like Charles’s palace, the Escorial was a powerful statement and meant to impress. But it was, first of all, a monastery and mausoleum, and the palace and royal apartments were subordinate in importance to the building’s religious function and its role as a royal pantheon. If Charles’s palace was built to greet living dignitaries, the Escorial was built to greet dead royalty. Its austere exterior was a fitting metaphor for the ascetic and sober spirit of Counter-Reformation Spain in the face of the threat posed by Protestantism from north of the Pyrenees.

The Catholic Church’s response to Protestantism’s threat was articulated in directives issued by a gathering of important church figures at the Council of Trent, which met between 1545 and 1563. The Council’s instructions were directed to artists of all kinds including architects.  They were especially urged to eliminate unnecessary or irrelevant ornamentation and focus on clarity or simplicity of expression or austerity regarding the subject matter. Philip’s instructions to Herrera, quoted above, is a perfect summary of the Council’s wishes, and the Escorial is an outstanding example of these wishes turned into reality.

Inside the Escorial.
Although Philip had named Madrid the country’s permanent capital in 1561, he lived intermittently in the Escorial for 14 years, occupying a palace encircling the chancel. Shutters in his bedroom wall allowed him a view of the high altar and, when dying from gangrene in 1598, to see mass being celebrated while in bed.

Philip’s apartments were simple, befitting his personality but otherwise the interior of the Escorial contains dazzling ornamentation. Of the 1,600 paintings most have a religious theme, but there are also portraits, and profane and mythological subjects. Paintings collected by Philip II and his successors range widely from the late Middle Ages to the 17th century. They include foreigners: Rogier Van der Weyden (1400-64), Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), Joachim Patinir (1480-1524), Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), Titian (1488-1576), Paolo Veronese (1526-88), Jacobo Tintoretto (1518-94) and Luca Giordano (1634-1705). Spaniards include Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1526-79), Alonso Sánchez Coello (1531-88), Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652), Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Alonso Cano (1601-67), Alonso de Valdés Leal (1622 -90), and Diego de Velázquez (1599-1660).

There are more than 500 frescoes covering walls and ceilings, and there are floors of marble and jasper in a variety of colours. Rare, exotic wood –mahogany, ebony, cedar, orange wood, walnut, terebinth (a kind of sumac)– make up shelves, gold is used generously on altars and to cover larger than life figures of saints and royalty. There are 570 sculpted, bronzed and gilded reliquaries, containing about 7, 500 relics of saints (Philip was a “relicomaniac”). The veneration of saints was a practice approved by the Council of Trent.

All this decoration might suggest that the spirit of simplicity and austerity urged by the Council of Trent and consonant with Philip’s personality was undermined by the sumptuous interior of the Escorial. There are two possible explanations for this:
The Council of Trent also recommended the use of art and sculpture to “instruct the faithful in the history and mystery of Catholicism” (Brown 53) and to encourage the piety and devotion of both monks and secular faithful. Scenes of the suffering of Christ, or of the saints and martyrs, or pictures of the Immaculate Conception, the Madonna (Mary) and Child, or the Holy Family or the heavenly hosts (notably the frescoes on the vaulted ceilings) were especially appropriate to elicit an emotional response;
Although Philip imposed his personality on the Escorial and was responsible for most that we see there now, collections were added to and commissions made up to the 19th century by successive monarchs who were not constrained by Philip’s rigid piety. This explains, for example, the 17th-century exuberant, baroque ceiling frescoes by the Italian Luca Giordano (1634-1705), or the playful 18th-century tapestries copied from cartoons painted by, for example, Francisco de Goya (1746-1826) or his brother-in-law, Francisco Bayeu (1734-95).

Reactions to the Escorial have varied. After its completion, Philip’s subjects likened it to “the eighth wonder of the world,” but for the 18th-century English clergyman, the Reverend Edward Clarke, it was “a large, confused, stupendous pile” (Blue Bk 303). In 1845, Richard Ford dismissed the Escorial as “vast and useless” (809a), “a useless, colossal pile” (810b), a “monument of fear and superstition.” More modern opinions are less disapproving and not so influenced by 18th or 19th-century anti-Catholic, pro-protestant sentiment. The mid 20th-century Anglo-Welsh travel writer, Jan Morris, views the Escorial as central to an understanding of Spain, its location in the centre of the country being indicative of the control that Castile has exerted on its history (Spain 11). She sees, in the building’s “pervading sadness … something of the tragedy of Spain, her lack of fulfilment (Spain 10-11).

What cannot be denied is that the Escorial is a very popular tourist attraction, and one that can be enjoyed on a day trip from Madrid. It may not be the eighth wonder of the world, but it is worth a visit, which reviews on sites such as Tripadvisor (which give it a high rating of 4+/5) also seem to endorse.

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 New Haven, London 1991
Calvert, Albert F The Escorial London, New York 1907
The Green Guide: Spain Michelin Travel Publications, 2000
Morris, Jan Spain London, 1964, reprinted 1987.
Robertson, Ian Blue Guide: Spain London, New York 6th ed., 1993
Ruiz Alcón, Ma Teresa Royal Monastery of El Escorial Barcelona 1987
Escorial from the air: By Turismo Madrid Consorcio Turístico from Madrid, España – Monasterio EscorialUploaded by Ecemaml, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6581920
Escorial, south facade: By Yvon Fruneau – This place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed asMonastery and Site of the Escurial, Madrid., CC BY-SA 3.0-igo, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58156723
Escorial, main entrance: By Jebulon – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21879649
Escorial library: By Xauxa Håkan Svensson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1597402