Felipe II’s imposing gray palace of San Lorenzo de El Escorial stands out against the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama to the northwest of Madrid. It was built between 1563 and 1584 in honor of St. Lawrence, and its unornamented severity set a new architectural style that became one of the most influential in Spain. The interior was conceived as a mausoleum and contemplative retreat rather than a splendid residence. The palace’s artistic wealth, which includes some of the most important works of art in the royal Habsburg collections, is concentrated in the museums, chapter houses, church, royal pantheon, and library. In contrast, the royal apartments are remarkably modest.
Established by Felipe II (r. 1556-98), this was Spain’s first public library. In 1619, a decree was issued demanding that a copy of each new publication in the empire be sent here. At its zenith, it contained some 40,000 books and manuscripts. The long Print Room has a marble floor and a glorious vaulted ceiling. The ceiling frescoes depict Philosophy, Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectics, Music, Geometry, Astrology, and Theology. The wooden shelving was designed by Juan de Herrera (1530-97). On the four main pillars are portraits of the royal house of Habsburg—Carlos I (Emperor Charles V), Felipe II, Felipe III, and Carlos II.
Directly beneath the high altar of the basilica is the Royal Pantheon, where almost all Spanish monarchs since Carlos I have been laid to rest. Adorned with black marble, red jasper, and Italian gilt bronze decorations, it was finished in 1654. Kings lie on the left of the altar and queens on the right. The most recent addition to the pantheon was the mother of Juan Carlos I in 2000. Of the eight other pantheons, one of the most notable is that of Juan de Austria, Felipe II’s half-brother, who became a hero after defeating the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Also worth seeing is La Tarta, a white marble polygonal tomb resembling a cake, where royal children are buried.
Historically, only the aristocracy were permitted to enter the basilica, and the townspeople were confined to the vestibule at the entrance. The basilica contains 45 altars. Among its highlights is the exquisite statue of Christ Crucified (1562) in Carrara marble by the Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. It is found in the chapel to the left of the entrance, with steps leading up to it. On either side of the high altar, above the doors leading to the Royal Apartments, are fine gilded bronze cenotaphs of Charles V and Felipe II worshiping with their families. The enormous altarpiece was designed by Juan de Herrera with colored marble, jasper, gilt-bronze sculptures, and paintings. The central tabernacle took seven years to craft.
The library’s impressive array of 40,000 books incorporates King Felipe II’ s personal collection. On display are precious manuscripts, including a poem by Alfonso X the Learned. The 16th-century ceiling frescoes are by Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527-96).
The funerary urns of Spanish monarchs line this octagonal marble mausoleum.
Alfonso XII College
This was founded by monks in 1875 as a boarding school.
The high light of this huge decorated church is the lavish altarpiece. The chapel houses a superb marble sculpture of the Crucifixion by Cellini.
The building of El Escorial
When chief architect Juan Bautista de Toledo died in 1567 he was replaced by Juan de Herrera, royal inspector of monuments. The plain architectural style of El Escorial is called desornamentado, which literally means “unadorned.”
Built on the second floor of the palace, these consist of Felipe II’s modestly decorated living quarters. His bedroom opens directly onto the high altar of the basilica.
Patio de los Evangelistas
This has a magnificent pavilion by Juan de Herrera at its center.
On display here is Charles V’s portable altar. Magnificent ceiling frescoes portray monarchs and angels.
Founded in 1567, this has been run by Augustinian monks since 1885.
The Glory of the Spanish Monarchy, by Luca Giordano
This beautiful fresco, above the main staircase, depicts Charles V and Felipe II, and scenes of the building of the monastery.
On August 10, 1557-St Lawrence’s Day – King Felipe II defeated the French in battle and immediately vowed to build a monastery in the saint’s honor. El Escorial’s shape, based on that of a gridiron, is said to recall the instrument of St. Lawrence’s martyrdom .