The Monastery and Royal Site of San Lorenzo of The Escorial (in Spanish “Monasterio y Sitio de El Escorial”) is a complex that includes a royal palace, a basilica, a pantheon, a library, a school and a monastery. It is located in the Spanish town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Madrid), it was built between 1563 and 1584 and it occupies an area of 33,327 m².
The palace was the residence of the Spanish Royal Family, the basilica is the burial place of the kings of Spain and the monastery is currently occupied by friars of the Order of Saint Augustine.
The Escorial was conceived in the second half of the 16th century by King Philip II and his architect Juan Bautista de Toledo. Nevertheless, Juan de Herrera, Juan de Minjares, Giovanni Battista Castello El Bergamasco and Francisco de Mora intervened on its construction on a later stage. The king conceived a large multifunctional complex, monastic and palace that rose the Herrerian style.
From the end of the 16th century, The Escorial was considered the Eighth Wonder of the World, both for its size and functional complexity and for its enormous symbolic value. Its architecture marked the passage from Renaissance plateresque to unornamented classicism. A huge work of great monumentality, it is also a receptacle for the other arts.
Its paintings, sculptures, choirbooks, parchments, liturgical ornaments and other sumptuary, sacred and aulic objects make The Escorial also a museum. Its complex iconography and iconology have deserved the most varied interpretations of historians, admirers and critics. The Escorial is the crystallization of the ideas and will of its promoter, King Philip II, a Renaissance prince.
The Royal building has many areas worthy to be visited as a unique element due to their magnificence, as it can be appreciated in the plans we show you down below:
The main areas that we are going to describe are the following:
- The Library;
- The Palace of Philip II;
- The Palace of the Bourbons;
- The Basilica;
- The Crypt;
- The Reliquaries;
- The Monastery;
- The Main Staircase;
- The Chapter Rooms;
- The Hall of Battles;
- The Architecture Museum;
- The Garden of Friars.
Library of The Escorial
It has many rooms where only the main one is currently being used.
The main hall of the Library of The Escorial measures 54 meters long, 9 meters wide and 10 meters high, being the barrel vault that crowns the room the most impressive element, at least visually.
This vault is divided into 7 zones, each of which is decorated with frescoes representing the seven liberal arts: Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectics) and Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Music, Geometry and Astrology). Each of the arts is represented by an allegorical figure of the discipline, two stories related to it, one on each side (usually drawn from mythology, classical history, the Bible and sacred history). These stories are complemented by four sages, again half on one side and half on the other, representative of each art. Finally, on the frontispieces are represented Philosophy (to the north, representing acquired knowledge) and Theology (to the south, representing revealed knowledge).
This decoration was painted by Pellegrino Tibaldi, in Mannerist Renaissance style, following the iconographic program of Father Joseph of Sigüenza.
As for the lateral parts of the main hall, the west wall has 7 windows from which the Guadarrama mountain range can be observed. The east wall has five large low windows, with stained-glass windows and balconies, and five small high windows, all of them focused towards the Courtyard of the Kings.
The sides are adorned with a multitude of oil portraits, including those of Charles II, Philip II and Charles V. Sadly, during the Napoleonic invasion, the Philip IV portrait painted by Velázquez was lost (now in the National Gallery of London).
The main hall of the Library of The Escorial also has some busts, such as that of the sailor Jorge Juan. In the hole of one of the windows there is a cabinet of fine wood made in the mid-18th century A.D., keeping 2,324 pieces.
The four walls have a powerful shelving system designed by Juan de Herrera, the architect of the monastery. It is in the classical-Renaissance style and it is made of fine woods such as mahogany, cedar or ebony. Fray José de Sigüenza said at the time that it is “the most gallant and well-treated thing of this genre […] that has been seen in a library“. In any case, the shelf is in a base of marble. It has 54 shelves, each with six pluthets. From the time when Father Antonio de San José was a librarian in the mid-18th century A.D., the second of these pluthets had a padlocked wooden lid, as it was common for courtiers to steal books.
The books on this shelf are found with the cut out, something that may be due to different reasons:
- Show that the cuts of books are golden;
- To break with the monotony of the cowhide of the spine of books;
- Read the title, written on them;
- For the placement, since the spine is thinner than the edge.
Finally, the floor of the main hall of the Library of The Escorial is paved with white and brown marble. In the longitudinal axis (from north to south) there is a wooden table, which is accompanied by five additional tables in grey marble. In each of these there are two plutates with books, which were endowed with doors at the end of the 18th century AD. They date back to the time of Philip II, and initially held spheres related to geography and astronomy. In fact, one of them is still in the room.
Today, these tables serve as exhibitors for the most important works of the Library of The Escorial, among which are the Cantigas de Santa María, by Alfonso X the Wise, or a figurative Apocalypse attributed to Juan Bapteur de Friburgo, Péronet Lamy and Juan Colombe.
The Palace of Philip II of The Escorial
The Palace of Philip II, also denominated “Palace of the Austrias”, occupies all the top area of The Escorial and part of the North patio, constructed in two floors around the presbytery of the Basilica and around the Patio de Mascarones. It follows the same architectural scheme of the Palace of Charles V in the Monastery of Yuste. Currently only the Royal Rooms and the Battle Room can be visited. In the private rooms of the Kings can be seen important paintings of the Spanish school in the early seventeenth century, the Italian and Venetian school of the sixteenth century, and the Flemish schools of the sixteenth and seventeenth, including St. Christopher in the ford of Joachim Patinir.
Before the royal rooms other rooms are passed through, such as the Hall of Ambassadors, with interesting exhibits such as 17th century mortars, a table inlaid with ivory, two sundials on the floor, two Chinese folding wooden chairs from the Ming era and portraits of all the monarchs of the House of Austria. Special mention to the impressive marquetry doors, a gift from Emperor Maximilian II. It can also be seen the so-called litter chair on which Philip II made his last trip to the monastery sick with gout.
The “House of the King” consists of a series of soberly decorated rooms, as it was the place of residence of the austere Philip II. The royal bedroom, located next to the main altar of the basilica, has a window that allowed the king to follow the mass from the bed when he was unable to do so due to the gout he suffered. It is divided into four rooms: the main room, the desk, the bedroom and the luxurious oratory.
The Palace of the Bourbons of The Escorial
In contrast to the austere monumentality of the Palace of the Austrians stands the Palace of the Bourbons. Built at the north of the Basilica, around the Patio of the Palace, the complex of rooms has its origin in the time of Philip II, when in that area were installed the Infantes’ quarters (northeast side of the courtyard), the Battle Gallery (south side) and the kitchens and service areas (west side).
Under the reign of Charles III, this area was inhabited by the then Prince and Princess of Asturias. When they ascended to the throne in 1788 as Carlos IV and María Luisa de Parma, they decided to keep their apartments in the same area and not to move to the “Casa del Rey” (House of the King). The new monarchs commissioned a new access staircase from the architect Juan de Villanueva, which was completed in 1793. The interiors were also decorated with sumptuous tapestries designed by Bayeu and Goya, together with rich furniture. Fernando VII was the last monarch to make use of these rooms.
The Basilica of The Escorial
Preceded by the Courtyard of the Kings, the Basilica of The Escorial is the true nucleus of the whole complex, around which the other rooms are articulated.
The temple is a basilica in the liturgical sense, that is, due to the papal privilege that allows it to hold such a title; however, it is not so in the architectural sense, since it does not have a basilical plan. It is a perfect square of 50 meters of side with four pillars arranged in a central position that give rise to the formation of three naves in either direction. This centralized plant responded to the conception of the universal harmony that existed from the 15th century and to its reflection in the sacred places. However, the construction of the monastery began in 1563, the same year that the Council of Trent ended, in which it had been agreed that all the churches should have a Latin cross plan. In order to resolve this disagreement, the roof of the temple was extended to the east, sheltering the main chapel, and to the west, roofing the choir and the atrium; in this way it is given to the exterior the appearance of a large nave. In the same way, the central nave perpendicular to that axis was enhanced with a covering of equal height as the previous one, forming the whole a perfect Latin cross that, in reality, does not correspond to the floor plan of the temple.
The naves of the temple are covered by barrel vaults supported by arches. All this gravitates on the perimeter walls and on four thick Doric central pillars, 8 metres on each side, 15.50 metres apart. The space they define, in the manner of a transept, is closed by a circular tambour supported by four pendentives. There are eight opened windows that provide natural light. It is covered with a 17-metre diameter dome topped by a cupola and, at its end, by a 2-metre diameter metal ball on which rises a cross. The total height of the highest point of the cross taken with respect to the pavement of the church is 95 meters.
All the work is done with granite masonry. The floor is made of white and grey marble.
The facade plane is not unique, differentiating two levels that correspond to the two superimposed orders of which it consists. The upper one, recessed, does not present any outstanding formal element, except for the simple pediment devoid of any ornament. The lower one, on the other hand, is protruding and is constituted by a tetrastyle portico of Tuscan order, in whose three intercolumnations open as many hollows under a semicircular arch. There are six semicolumns that form it, as the ones at the ends are double. In correspondence with each of these columns there are six pedestals that support the effigies in marble of those kings of Judah that in some way were related to the Temple of Solomon. In the center, as protagonists, are the carvings of David and Solomon. They all bear on the pedestal an inscription alluding to the respective monarch, which were written by the great humanist Benito Arias Montano.
The Crypt of The Escorial
The Royal Crypt of the Monastery of The Escorial, also known as the Pantheon of the Kings, was built by Juan Gómez de Mora.
It consists of 26 marble tombs where the remains of the kings and queens of Spain of the dynasties of Austria and Bourbon rest, except for the rests of the kings Philip V and Ferdinand VI, who chose the Royal Palace of La Granja of San Ildefonso and the Monastery of the Salesas Reales of Madrid as burial place, respectively.
It also misses the remains of kings Amadeo I, of the house of Savoy, and José I, of the house of Bonaparte, buried respectively in the Basilica of Superga in Turin and in the National Palace of the Invalids in Paris.
In the crypt also lie the remains of the queen consorts who were mothers of kings (except for Isabel of Bourbon, who died without successor but who was buried in the Crypt because she showed great interest in the construction of it). It also keeps the rests of the only consort king that has existed in Spain since the existence of the monastery of The Escorial, Francisco de Asís of Bourbon, husband of Isabel II.
The last remains deposited in the pantheon have been those of King Alfonso XIII and his wife, Queen Victoria Eugenia. His son Juan of Bourbon and Battenberg, and his wife María de las Mercedes of Bourbon-Dos Sicilias, counts of Barcelona and parents of King Juan Carlos I, are still in a previous stay called Pudridero.
In the Pudridero of The Escorial, the mortal remains of the Royal Family remain there for approximately 25 years (the time considered necessary to culminate the biological process for their natural reduction). On the same stairs leading to the Royal Pantheon, at the first landing on the right, a passage closed by a wooden door leads to this small enclosure. The walls are of stone, the floor of granite and the ceiling is vaulted; 16 square meters compose the room in total.
Only members of the Augustinian community (who have been guarding the Monastery of The Escorial since 1885) have access to this room. The Royal Family gives them the remains of their deceased in a ceremony that has been repeated for centuries.
Little is known about the pudridero, as well as of the contiguous pudridero of infants. Both remain closed to the 700,000 visitors who visit the Escorial every year. There is no document showing the date of its creation, although it should be very close to that of the Crypt, inaugurated in 1654 under the reign of Philip IV.
Following one of the precepts approved by the Council of Trent concerning the veneration of saints, Philip II endowed the Monastery with one of the largest collections of relics in the Catholic world. The collection consists of some 7,500 relics, which are kept in 507 boxes or sculptural reliquaries designed by Juan de Herrera and most of them built by the silversmith Juan de Arfe y Villafañe.
These reliquaries adopt the most varied forms: heads, arms, pyramidal cases, caskets, etc.
The relics were distributed throughout the Monastery, the most important of which were concentrated in the Basilica. On the Gospel side, under the protection of the Mystery of the Annunciation of Mary, all the bones of the saints and martyrs are kept. On the opposite side, on the Altar of St. Jerome, are the remains of the saints and martyrs. The sacred remains are kept in two large cupboards, decorated by Federico Zuccaro, which are divided into two bodies; they can be opened in front, to be exposed for worship, and behind, to access the relics. At present they remain closed and are exhibited only on All Saints’ Day.
The monastery itself occupies the entire southern third of the building. It was originally occupied by the Jerónimos monks in 1567, although since 1885 it has been inhabited by the Augustinian cloistered fathers. The enclosure is organized around the large main cloister, the Patio de los Evangelistas, a masterpiece designed by Juan Bautista de Toledo and which constitutes one of the best architectural pages of the Monastery.
Its two floors are connected by the spectacular main staircase, with vaults decorated with frescoes by Luca Giordano.
The ambitious pictorial programme of its arcades was initiated by Luca Cambiaso and continued by Pellegrino Tibaldi.
In the center of the cloister stands a beautiful temple made of granite, marble and jasper of different colors on the design of Juan de Herrera, influenced by the tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio, by Bramante. The sculptures of the four evangelists were chiseled by Juan Bautista Monegro from a single block of marble, and hold an open book with a fragment of the Gospel in the language in which they were written.
Next to the Chapter Houses, it also stands out the Lower Priory Cell, with a fresco on the ceiling about the Judgement of Solomon, by Francesco da Urbino, reminding the Prior the need for a fair government in the Monastery.
The sacristy, still in use, has the Adoration of the Sacred Form, by Claudio Coello.
In the Old Church is kept the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Titian, one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, which Philip II commissioned for the main altarpiece of the Basilica but which he discarded because of its dark color, not very visible at a certain distance.
The Main Staircase
The Main Staircase of The Escorial follows the typical Spanish tradition of an imperial staircase with a main section divided into two on either side from the first plateau. It maintains the axis of symmetry of the monastery and makes the three floors of the Patio de los Evangelistas compatible with the three floors of the monastery, through the use of discreet doors that allow the passage to the most secluded and domestic area. It is usually attributed to Bergamasco, although his project was modified and developed by Juan de Herrera. Its box has a great height and it has its own roof that covers the great skied vault which illuminates its magnificent frescoes from above.
It is decorated with frescoes by Pellegrino Tibaldi, Luca Giordano and Luca Cambiaso, with The Battle of San Quintín and the Foundation of The Escorial, in which Philip II discusses the traces of the Monastery with Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera, together with the Major Labourer, the jerome Fray Antonio de Villacastín.
The Chapter Rooms
Currently destined for paintings, the Chapter Rooms of The Escorial were the rooms where the monks celebrated their chapters (some kind of mutual confessions to maintain the purity of the congregation).
From the time of Velázquez, who intervened in its decoration, they housed important paintings. Despite the transfer of many of them to the Prado Museum (also in Madrid), several important ones are currently on display, such as “The Last Supper” and a “Saint Jerome” by Titian, and “José Tunic” by Velázquez. In February 2009, the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Van Dyck was again hung on its walls, recovered two centuries after its removal during the Napoleonic invasion.
Its splendid art gallery contains works from the German, Flemish, Venetian, Italian and Spanish schools of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. It includes several works by some of Philip II’s favourite painters such as El Bosco, Pieter Coecke and Michel Coxcie; an Adoration of the Shepherds by Tintoretto, works by masters such as Federico Barocci, Paolo Veronese, Luca Giordano, Francesco Guercino, José de Ribera, Zurbarán, Alonso Cano and many other authors, as well as the famous Crucifixion (or Great Calvary) by Rogier van der Weyden.
The Hall of Battles
The Hall of Battles of The Escorial is a gallery of 60 x 6 meters, with 8 meters high, located in the area of the royal apartments. Its walls depict frescoed battles won by the Spanish armies.
In the south wall, only interrupted by two doors, it is painted the battle of La Higueruela (1431). The northern wall is divided by nine windows creating nine spaces in which the same number of scenes from the war against France (1557-1558) are depicted, with the accent placed on the battle of San Quintín, linked to the foundation of the Monastery of The Escorial itself. Finally, the extremes depict two scenes from one of the most recent victories of the Spanish troops in that time: the battle of Isla Terceira between the Spanish navy led by Álvaro de Bazán against the French navy (1582-1583).
Niccolò Granello and his half-brother Fabrizio Castello, Lazzaro Tavarone and Orazio Cambiaso were in charge of the paintings. To ensure historical accuracy, the painters were given models of the formation of the squadrons and their uniforms.
The Architectural Museum
The Architectural Museum is located in the basements of The Escorial, in the so-called Juan de Herrera Vault Plant, and it was created in 1963 as part of the exhibitions of the fourth centenary of the laying of the first stone.
Its eleven rooms show the tools, cranes and other material used in the construction of the monument, as well as reproductions of plans, models and documents related to the works, with very interesting data that explained the idea and gestation of the building.
The Gardens of the Friars
The Gardens of the Friars of The Escorial were requested to be built by Philip II, who was a lover of nature. They are an ideal place for rest and meditation. It is a place of entertainment and study for the students of the school.
The king conceived his gardens as a productive space in which to grow vegetables and medicinal plants, but he also saw them as a source of pleasure, with fountains and flowers.
The monarch compiled plans of gardens in France, Italy, England and the Netherlands, hiring the best gardeners, both foreign and Spanish. This now austere garden was originally full of flowers, forming a kind of tapestry, so it was compared to carpets brought from Turkey and Damascus. It was also an authentic botanical garden, with up to 68 different varieties of flowers, many medicinal, and about 400 plants that were brought from the New World.
To the southwest of the garden is the Convalescents Gallery or Sun Corridor: a spacious, airy, light-filled space designed for the resting of the sick. It is supported by an architectural articulation achieved in the Tower of the Pharmacy. Its sober facade towards the west contrasts with the more open facade towards the gardens, where the solution of arches on Ionic colonnades is unique in the Monastery of The Escorial.