Escorial in Spain: a Palace for God, a Shack for the King
The architectural complex Escorial (Spain) is often called the most mysterious landmark of Madrid. But even the many legends that plague its history have not prevented it from becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited corners of the country.
The Escorial Palace in Spain is a grandiose medieval building and one of the most important landmarks in the country, built to commemorate the Spanish victory over the enemy army. The powerful structure, located an hour’s drive from Madrid, fulfills several functions at once – a royal residence, a monastery, and the main tomb of Spanish rulers.
One of the characteristic features of El Escorial, which is either compared to the eighth wonder of the world, or called a real architectural nightmare.
is the complete absence of ostentatious splendor inherent in most royal castles. Even its appearance is more like a fortress than a luxurious palace! But even with all its austerity and brevity, San Lorenzo de El Escorial is something to see.
The entrance to the monastery is guarded by a giant gate made of pure bronze. After the gate, visitors can see the Courtyard of the Kings, decorated with statues of biblical righteous kings. In the center of this courtyard is an artificial reservoir, adjoined by four pools of colorful marble.
A bird’s-eye view of the Escorial in Spain reveals that it is divided into a series of small patios decorated with lush greenery and connected by scenic galleries. The interior furnishings of El Escorial present a far greater variety. Marble finishing, executed in calm gray tones, walls, supplemented with graceful artistic paintings, majestic sculptures created by great Milanese masters – all this perfectly combines with the gloomy grandeur of the tomb and the simplicity of the royal chambers.
The main pride of the Escorial monastery is the church altar, decorated with a scattering of precious stones and colorful griotto. There are also regular chamber music concerts and performances of the famous boys’ choir, whose singing is compared to the voices of angels.
The history of San Lorenzo de El Escorial began in 1557 with the Battle of Saint-Quentin, during which King Philip II’s army not only defeated the French enemy, but also almost completely destroyed the monastery of Saint Lawrence. Being a deeply religious man and wishing to perpetuate his victory over the enemy army, the king decided to erect a unique monastery.
And then everything was as in a well-known folk tale. Having gathered two architects, two stonemasons and two scientists, Philip II ordered them to find a place that would not be too hot or too cold, and that would not be too far from the capital. This was the base of the Sierra de Guadarrama, protected by its high slopes from both the hot summer sun and the freezing winter wind.
The first stone in the foundation of the new structure was laid in 1563, and the further it progressed, the more grandiose the plans of the Spanish ruler became. The fact is that Philip II, who was frail and prone to melancholy, dreamed not of a luxurious palace, but of a quiet abode in which he could rest from royal cares and ingratiating courtiers. That is why the Escorial in Madrid was obliged to become not only the residence of the reigning king, but also a functioning monastery inhabited by several dozen novices. Most importantly, it was here that Philip II planned to carry out the commandment of Charles V and arrange a dynastic tomb in which all members of his family would be buried.
The construction of this grandiose architectural ensemble lasted as long as 20 years. During this time, several famous architects, including Michelangelo’s pupil Juan Bautista Toledo, had time to supervise it. The finished complex was a massive structure, which Philip II himself called “a palace for God and a hovel for the king.
At the center of El Escorial rose a huge Catholic cathedral, symbolizing the monarch’s belief that every politician who cared about the future of his country should not forget his own religious beliefs. In the southern part is the monastery, and in the northern part is the royal residence, the appearance of which could not be better emphasized by the stern temperament of its owner.
Interestingly, the tomb and the cathedral, as well as many other objects of the complex are made in the style of desornamentado, which means “unadorned” in Spanish. The Escorial Royal Chambers are no exception, the traditional combination of smooth whitewashed walls and plain brick floor. All this once again emphasizes Philip II’s desire for simplicity and functionality.
When all the works were finished, the king began collecting paintings by European painters, assembling a collection of valuable manuscripts and books, and holding various social events. The most famous of these is considered to be the chess tournament of 1575, held between the players of Spain and Italy. It was captured in a painting by the Venetian painter Luigi Mussini.
Structure of the complex
The Escorial Palace in Madrid consists of several independent parts, each of which deserves the closest attention of visitors.
The Tomb of the Kings at the Escorial (Spain) is considered the most mysterious and perhaps the saddest part of the complex. The magnificent tomb, decorated with marble, jasper and bronze, is divided into two parts. The first, called the Pantheon of the Kings, contains the relics of almost all Spanish rulers except Fernando VI, Philip V and Amadeo of Savoy.
But the second part of the tomb, known as the Pantheon of the Infants, “belongs” to the little princes and princesses, next to whom rest their mother queens. Interestingly, there are no free tombs left in the tomb, so the question of where the current king and queen will be buried remains open.
The size and historical significance of the Escorial’s palace book repository is second only to the famous Vatican Apostolic Library. In addition to manuscripts written by Mother Teresa, Alfonso the Wise and St Augustine, it houses the largest collection of ancient Oriental manuscripts in the world, works of history and cartography, monastic codices and illustrated almanacs from the Middle Ages.
The total number of museum pieces is about 40,000. Most of these treasures are housed in huge cabinets made of precious wood and fitted with transparent glass doors. However, even with this condition you will hardly be able to see the title of this or that publication. The fact is that El Escorial library is the only one in the world where books are displayed spines inside. It is believed that in the absence of direct sunlight, the spines, decorated with intricate ancient patterns, will be better preserved.
The main decoration of the library is the marble floor and the unique painted ceiling, whose pictures represent the 7 free disciplines – geometry, rhetoric, mathematics, etc. The two main sciences, philosophy and theology, have two walls.
There are two interesting museums in the Escorial Palace in Madrid. One of them keeps drawings, three-dimensional models, construction tools and other exhibits related to the history of the famous tomb. The other has more than 1.5 thousand paintings by Titian, El Greco, Goya, Velázquez and other famous artists (both Spanish and foreign).
Scholars claim that Philip II himself, with his outstanding artistic taste, was in charge of selecting most of the paintings. After his death other heirs to the Spanish throne were in charge of enriching the priceless collection. By the way, in one of the 9 halls of the museum you can see a lot of geographic maps, made in those days. If you have time, compare them with their modern counterparts – very interesting.
No less interesting attraction of the Escorial in Spain are the palace gardens, located in the southern and eastern part of the monastery. They are made in the form of unusual figures and planted with hundreds of exotic flowers and plants. There is a huge pond in the park, with a flock of white swans swimming through it now and then, and several beautiful fountains that blend in beautifully with their surroundings.
Looking at the photos of Escorial, it is impossible not to notice the grandiose Catholic Cathedral, the splendor of which makes a truly overwhelming impression on visitors. One of the main decorations of El Real is the ancient frescoes covering not only the entire ceiling, but also the space above the four dozen altars. They are said to have been created not only by Spanish, but also by Venetian masters.
Of no less interest is the central retablo, an altarpiece designed by the palace’s chief architect. The paintings in this part of the cathedral are decorated with pure gold, and the sculptures of the royal family, kneeling in prayer, are made of white marble.
And one more interesting fact! According to the original project the dome of the cathedral of El Real was supposed to be as high as possible. By order of the Vatican, however, the dome was left 90 meters high, otherwise it would have been much higher than St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
The Escorial Palace, located at Av Juan de Borbón y Battemberg, 28200, is open year round and visiting hours depend only on the season:
Please note! On Mondays, the monastery, castle and shrine are closed!
The cost of an ordinary ticket is 10 €, with a discount – 5 €. The ticket office closes one hour before the end of the complex. The last entrance to its territory is during the same period of time. For more information, see the official website of El Escorial – https://www.patrimonionacional.es/en.
The prices on the page are for November 2019.
Going to visit the monastery, palace or tomb of kings in Escorial (Spain), heed the following recommendations:
- The staff of the complex does not speak English well, so you will have to ask all your questions in Spanish.
- Backpacks, bags and other large items should be left in special lockers, self-service lockers. They cost 1€.
- It is not allowed to take photos inside the premises – numerous security guards watch closely for this.
- Visitors who come to the monastery with their own or rented vehicles can leave them in the paid parking located at the entrance.
- And a few more words about the audio guide: an employee of the reception desk, by default, chooses the tour, designed for 120 minutes. At the same time, no one specifies that there is an extended version that lasts a full hour longer.
- But that’s not all! To rent an audio guide, made in the form of a tablet with 1 headphone, the employees of the tomb require a passport or credit card as a deposit, things that are extremely undesirable to give in the wrong hands. In general, it is better not to mess.
- For a walk choose very comfortable shoes – to walk here will have a lot, in addition, then up, then down.
- There are audio guides, but they are so uninformative and monotonous that it’s better to do without them. If you want to see not only one of the main attractions of Madrid, but also to learn a lot of interesting facts about the life of local kings, join an organized guided tour. In favor of this decision is the fact that most of the exhibits are described in Spanish.
- At the Escorial complex (Spain), there are several souvenir shops where you can buy quite interesting things.
- If you want to eat, go down to the restaurant located in the monastery. They say that they serve very tasty lunches there. There are three choices of first and second courses, and water and wine are included in the price. As a last resort, have a picnic in the huge park outside the mausoleum.
Interesting historical facts about the Escorial in Spain:
Author: Olga Sheiko
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Escorial is a medieval monastery and royal palace in Spain
The Escorial Monastery is a majestic 16th-century architectural complex that fully reflects the ideological and cultural aspirations of Spain during the Renaissance. It includes a pantheon, a palace, monastic cells, a library and several outbuildings. Escorial has been a World Heritage Site since 1984.
History of the construction of the Escorial
In 1557 the army of King Philip II of Spain defeated the French in Flanders. But the joy of victory was overshadowed by the unintentional destruction of the monastery of St. Lawrence, highly revered in Spain. Then Philip II decided to build a new monastery in his honor.
It took almost four years to find a place. It ended up being the southern slope of Mount Abantos in the Sierra de Guadarrama massif. The site for the construction of the Escorial was located at an altitude of 1028 m.
Construction began in 1563 by the famous Spanish architect Juan Bautista de Toledo. However, the architectural complex, originally conceived only as a monastery, rapidly expanded as it was being built.
In 1571, most of the monastic premises were built in the southern part of the complex. In 1572, the royal palace was already built in its northern part and in 1574 construction of the basilica began.
It is considered that the last stone was laid in the Escorial in 1584, but it took several more years for the artists and decorators to decorate its interior.
Philip II personally supervised all the stages of construction and the appearance of the architectural complex. Subsequently he took an active part in forming a library and a collection of paintings.
Architectural Ensemble of the Escorial
The Escorial has an area of 33,327 square meters. This architectural complex amazes with its grandeur and beauty. However, not all the premises are open to tourists. Those that are available for viewing work according to a certain schedule. It is better to clarify it in advance.
In plan, the Escorial is a rectangle with sides of 208 and 162 m. As the main building material is used light sandstone.
Here is an interesting fact! From a bird’s-eye view the monastery resembles a lattice. This is due to the fact that St. Lawrence, in whose honor the monastery was built, was martyred on a red-hot grid. He was literally roasted by pressing horns against it and laying hot coals down.
To get an accurate idea of the scale of the architectural complex, you need to know that it contains:
- 13 chapels;
- 2,673 windows;
- 300 monastic cells;
- 86 staircases;
- 15 galleries;
- 9 organs;
- 1,200 doors.
From the outside, the Escorial looks more like a fortress than a monastery or a royal palace. The thick-walled fence, massive bronze gates, simple forms, austere rows of windows and a minimum of decoration only reinforce this impression.
The interior decoration of the architectural complex is also somewhat restrained. Its richness lies in the unique medieval frescos, artistic paintings of walls and ceilings, the beauty of natural marble, unique sculptures.
The grounds of the Escorial are no less worthy of attention than its rooms. The terraced gardens in the Italian style delight the eye with their manicure, lush greenery, and original geometry. Four stone pools and statues of biblical kings can be seen in the Courtyard of the Kings.
The two “New Museums” in Escorial contain a huge number of exhibits. One contains documents, sketches, tools and models related to the construction of the monastery.
In the second museum, which occupies nine halls, you can see a collection of paintings of the XV-XVII centuries. Paintings by Titian and artists of the Flemish school are especially well represented. There are also the works of Bosch, Tintoretto, El Greco.
The collection of paintings was begun by Philip II. His work was continued by his heirs in several generations.
The library is a true pride of the Escurial. For many years it has been carefully preserved here:
- priceless manuscripts of St. Teresa of Avila and St. Augustine;
- ancient editions of illustrated hymns;
- the largest collection of Arabic manuscripts in the world;
- tens of thousands of books and documents.
Interesting fact! In this library all books are put spines inside in order to preserve the integrity and beauty of the bindings and let the paper “breathe”.
The main hall of the library occupies an area 55 meters long and 10 meters wide. It amazes by the richness of frescos and handwritten icons, the monumentality of bookshelves. One of its main decorations is the 54-meter vault, painted by Pellegrino Tibaldi.
Pantheon with the ashes of Spanish kings
The Pantheon to bury the ashes of the Spanish kings was not built in Escorial until 1617, during the reign of Philip III. Marble, jasper, and bronze were used for the construction. Almost all the rulers of Spain, starting with Charles V, are buried here.
The Pantheon is divided into two parts. One holds the ashes of the kings themselves and their wives who gave birth to male heirs. The second (the pantheon of the Infants) contains the ashes of their children who did not inherit the throne.
The Pantheon of Kings is a circular chamber that is divided into 8 sections with separate cells along its perimeter. Each of them holds a massive urn with ashes. They are all arranged in strict chronological order.
Interesting fact! Before entering the pantheon, the remains of kings lie in a special chamber for a long time. Only the monks of the Escorial are allowed access there.
The Pantheon of the Infants was built even later, in 1888. Its nine chambers differ significantly from the Pantheon of the Kings. They are more luminous rooms, and instead of small urns there are marble tombs.
The Escorial Monastery is a place full of amazing secrets, magnificent interiors, and antiques. It is simply impossible to remain indifferent to it. The impressions of the architectural complex will more than repay the price of the entrance ticket.