El Escorial, the Perpetual Home for the Catholic Crown of Spain

Category: Madrid

The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo El Real, or simply El Escorial is situated 45 km. northwest of Madrid at the foot of Mt. Abantos in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Philip II of Spain has commissioned the Spanish architect Juan Bautista de Toledo to design the El Escorial in 1559 to commemorate the 1557 Spanish victory during the Battle of St. Quentin against Henry II of France. Together they collaborated and transformed the monastery as a “perpetual home for the Catholic Crown of Spain.” Unfortunately Toledo died in 1567 and passed the responsibilities to his apprentice Juan de Herrera. The monastery was finished in 1584.

El Escorial was once a Spanish royal palace and a monastery. Formerly a property of the Hieronymite monks, it is currently an Augustinian monastery. It was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in November 2, 1984. El Escorial offers magnificent sections each one illustrating its contributions and glory. A trip to El Escorial is never complete without a glimpse of these structures:

Basilica of San Lorenzo el Real

Initially designed similar to Gothic cathedrals of Western Europe, the Basilica of San Lorenzo el Real is the central structure in the El Escorial complex. The Latin cross was replaced with a Greek cross that has 4 arms equal in length. The bell towers located at the western end of the church were reduced in size. Its dome rises at a height of almost 100 meters and supported by 4 granite piers that are connected by Roman-inspired arches. The most adorned part of the basilica is the area nearby the high altar. The 3-tiered reredos located behind the altar is made up of jasper and red granite standing at 28 meters and are decorated with bronze statuary.

Pantheon of the Kings

It houses 26 marble tombs holding the remains of the kings and ruling queens of the Bourbon and Habsburg empires starting with Charles I to the present, with the exception of Philip V and Ferdinand VI. There are 2 purideros (decaying chamber) at El Escorial, the Pantheon of the Kings and Pantheon of the Princes that are only allowed to be visited by Monastery monks. In these areas, the remains of the royal families are put in a small leaden urn. After 50 years, the remains will be transferred to the marble sepulchers of the pantheon.

Library

King Philip II gave his private collection of various documents to this library. He also made a number of acquisitions of great works from Spain and other countries. The library was arranged by Juan de Herrera and Benito Arias made the initial catalog. It has more than 40,000 volumes. Its dimension is 10 meters in height, nine meters in width and 54 meters in length. The crypt of the ceiling is ornamented with murals portray the 7 liberal arts: Arithmetic, Astronomy, Dialectic, Geometry, Grammar, Music and Rhetoric.

Reliquaries

Philip II donated one of the biggest reliquaries in Catholicism upon the approval of the Council of Trent. The collected works consist of more than 7,500 relics which are stocked up in 570 sculpted containers designed by Juan de Herrera. Majority of the collections were created by the artisan Juan de Arfe Villafañe.