Find out more about the El Escorial Monastery, its palace and the ancient library that made the Monastery of El Escorial famous.
The history of how the El Escorial Monastery came to be takes us back to the 1500s, when Spain's king ruled over a vast empire.
A short time before his death, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V asked his son, King Philip II of Spain, to build a dignified tomb for the universal monarch. Charles had been a man known for loving the pleasures in life, cosmopolitan and a world traveler. However, Philip was more conservative, reserved and religious. Upon realizing that he would also need a headquarters from which to reign over his vast empire, he envisioned a large complex that would include a tomb fit for his father, a church and a monastery dedicated to God, and a palace and library for himself.
Philip II searched until he found the perfect location, El Escorial, located just 45 kilometers (28 miles) northwest of Madrid in the center of Spain. It was here that the famous San Lorenzo de El Escorial Monastery would be built in honor of Saint Lawrence Day of August 15, 1557, the day in which King Philip won his first battle in St. Quentin, France.
The project was charged to various different architects including Juan Bautista de Toledo and Francesco Paciotto. It was Juan de Herrera, however, who was the most well known and would leave his distinctive mark on the Monastery of El Escorial. He designed a sober façade without any decoration and slate roofs, a style that came to be known by the architect's name and would be later copied by other architects as a variation to Spanish Renaissance art. The El Escorial Monastery building consisted of a series of different wings surrounding interior patios around a basilica church. Here, the El Escorial Monastery building combines Castilian, Italian and Flemish stylistic elements and, by strange coincidence, the building takes the shape of grill over which Saint Lawrence was killed. Another interesting fact about the Saint Lawrence El Escorial Monastery is that until recent history it was the building with the most windows in all of Spain.
The Monastery of El Escorial was built on the concept of imitating the temple of King Solomon, a figure with whom Philip II identified with. With this idea in mind, statues of King David and King Solomon were placed in the entrance of the building.
Just like the great King represented in the Bible, King Philip also sought knowledge. With this in mind, he had one of the largest libraries of the time built within the El Escorial which included great collections of books, scientific instruments, maps and art work by some of the best artists of the time, a collection that would be further expanded by his successors. Today, visitors to the El Escorial Library can view masterpieces by the likes of Hyeronimus Bosch, Rogier van der Weyden, Titian, Diego Velazquez and Anton van Dyck. The impressive library of El Escorial also boasts an impressive collection of fresco (mural type) paintings in the Hall of Battles.
Although the whole complex is often referred to as the El Escorial Monastery, in reality it is much more than a Monastery. On one hand, there is the El Escorial Palace where the King resided with a bedroom that opened to the interior of the church so that he could assist mass even when his sickness (gout) prevented him.
The majestic El Escorial Church is preceded by the Court of the Kings. Underneath the Court of the Kings in the El Escorial complex is the crypt that holds the Royal Pantheon. The Royal Pantheon is the location of all the tombs of the kings, queens and princes of Spain over the last 500 years with some exceptions. When a member of the Spanish Royal Family dies, his or her body is moved to a secret room called the “pudridero” where the body decomposes for 30 years before it is moved to one of the small urns in the crypt.
The El Escorial complex is completed by a monastery of Augustinian monks, a private university run by the monks, and a dormitory.