El Escorial

El Escorial is an historical residence of the king of Spain. It is one of the Spanish royal sites and functions as a monastery, royal palace, museum and school. It is located about 45 km (28 mi) northwest of the Spanish capital, Madrid, in the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

El Escorial comprises two architectural complexes of great historical and cultural significance: El Real Monasterio de El Escorial itself and La Granjilla de La Fresneda, a royal hunting lodge and monastic retreat about five km away. These sites have a dual nature; that is to say, during the 16th and 17th centuries, they were places in which the temporal power of the Spanish monarchy and the ecclesiastical predominance of the Roman Catholic religion in Spain found a common architectural manifestation. El Escorial was, at once, a monastery and a Spanish royal palace. Originally a property of the Hieronymite monks, it is now an Augustinian monastery.

Philip II of Spain, reacting to the Protestant Reformation sweeping through Europe during the sixteenth century, devoted much of his lengthy reign (1556-1598) and much of his seemingly inexhaustible supply of New World gold to stemming the Protestant tide. His protracted efforts were, in the long run, partly successful. However, the same counter-reformational impulse had a much more benign expression, thirty years earlier, in Philip's decision to build the complex at El Escorial.

Philip engaged the Spanish architect, Juan Bautista de Toledo, to be his collaborator in the design of El Escorial. Juan Bautista had spent the greater part of his career in Rome, where he had worked on the basilica of St. Peter's, and in Naples, where he had served the king's viceroy, whose recommendation brought him to the king's attention. Philip appointed him architect-royal in 1559, and together they designed El Escorial as a monument to Spain's role as a center of the Christian world.

On November 2, 1984, UNESCO declared The Royal Site of San Lorenzo of El Escorial a World Heritage Site. It is an extremely popular tourist attraction, often visited by day-trippers from Madrid - more than 500.000 visitors come to El Escorial every year (2004 - 504 238, 2005 - 512 834, 2006 - 534 932, 2007 - 538 491).

Design and conception

Шаблон:TOCright El Escorial is situated at the foot of Mt. Abantos in the Sierra de Guadarrama. It is a bleak, semi-forested, wind-swept place that owes its name to nearby piles of slag or tailings, called scoria, the detritus of long-played-out iron mines in the Guadarrama.

This austere location, hardly an obvious choice for the site of a royal palace, was chosen by King Philip II of Spain, and it was he who ordained the building of a grand edifice here to commemorate the 1557 Spanish victory at the Battle of St. Quentin in Picardy against Henry II, king of France. He also intended the complex to serve as a necropolis for the interment of the remains of his parents, Charles I and Isabella of Portugal, himself, and his descendants. In addition, Philip envisioned El Escorial as a center for studies in aid of the Counter-Reformation cause.

The building's cornerstone was laid on April 23, 1563. The design and construction were overseen by Juan Bautista de Toledo, who did not live to see the completion of the project. With Toledo's death in 1567, direction passed to his apprentice, Juan de Herrera, under whom the building was completed in 1584, in less than 21 years.

Since then, El Escorial has been the burial site for most of the Spanish kings of the last five centuries, Bourbons as well as Habsburgs. The Royal Pantheon contains the tombs of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (who ruled Spain as King Charles I), Philip II, Philip III, Philip IV, Charles II, Louis I, Charles III, Charles IV, Ferdinand VII, Isabel II, Alfonso XII, and Alfonso XIII. Two Bourbon kings, Philip V (who reigned from 1700 to 1746) and Ferdinand VI (1746-1759), as well as King Amadeo of Savoy (1870-1873), are not buried in the monastery.

The floor plan of the building is in the form of a gridiron. The traditional belief is that this design was chosen in honor of St. Lawrence, who, in the third century AD, was martyred by being roasted to death on a grill. St. Lawrence’s feast day is August 10, the same date as the 1557 Battle of St. Quentin.

In fact, however, the origin of the building's layout is quite controversial. The grill-like shape, which did not fully emerge until Herrera eliminated from the original conception the six interior towers of the facade, was, by no means, unique to El Escorial. Other buildings had been constructed with interior courtyards fronting on churches or chapels; King's College, Cambridge, dating from 1441, is one such example; the old Ospedale Maggiore, Milan's first hospital, begun in 1456 by Antonio Filarete, is another grid-like building with interior courtyards. In fact, palaces of this approximate design were commonplace in the Byzantine and Arab world. Strikingly similar to El Escorial is the layout of the Alcázar of Seville and the design of the Alhambra at Granada where, as at El Escorial, two courtyards in succession separate the main portal of the complex from a fully-enclosed place of worship.

, was constructed from a plan based on the descriptions of Solomon's temple. ]] Nonetheless, the most persuasive theory for the origin of the floor plan is that it is based on descriptions of the Temple of Solomon by the Judeo-Roman historian, Flavius Josephus: a portico followed by a courtyard open to the sky, followed by a second portico and a second courtyard, all flanked by arcades and enclosed passageways, leading to the "holy of holies". Statues of David and Solomon on either side of the entrance to the basilica of El Escorial lend further weight to the theory that this is the true origin of the design. A more personal connection can be drawn between the David-warrior figure, representing Charles V, and his son, the stolid and solomonically prudent Philip II. Echoing the same theme, a fresco in the center of El Escorial's library, a reminder of Solomon’s legendary wisdom, affirms Philip's preoccupation with the great Jewish king, his thoughtful and logical character, and his extraordinary monumental temple.

The Temple-of-Solomon design, if indeed it was the basis for El Escorial, was extensively modified to accommodate the additional functions and purposes Philip II intended the building to serve. Beyond being a monastery, El Escorial is also a pantheon, a basilica, a convent, a school, a library, and a royal palace. All these functional demands resulted in a doubling of the building's size from the time of its original conception.

Built primarily from locally-quarried gray granite, square and sparsely-ornamented, El Escorial is austere, even forbidding, in its outward appearance, seemingly more like a fortress than a monastery or palace. It takes the form of a gigantic quadrangle, approximately 224 m by 153 m, which encloses a series of intersecting passageways and courtyards and chambers. At each of the four corners is a square tower surmounted by a spire, and, near the center of the complex (and taller than the rest) rise the pointed belfries and round dome of the basilica. Philip's instructions to Toledo were simple and clear, directing that the architects should produce "simplicity in the construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation."

Aside from its explicit purposes, the complex is also an enormous storehouse of art. It displays masterworks by Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Velázquez, Roger van der Weyden, Paolo Veronese, Alonso Cano, José de Ribera, Claudio Coello and others. The library contains thousands of priceless manuscripts; for example, the collection of the sultan, Zidan Abu Maali, who ruled Morocco from 1603 to 1627, is housed at El Escorial. Giambattista Castello designed the magnificent main staircase.

Sections of the building

In order to describe the parts of the great building in a coherent fashion, it may be useful to undertake an imaginary walking tour, beginning with the main entrance at the center of the western facade:

The patio of the kings

The basilica

The basilica of San Lorenzo el Real, the central building in the El Escorial complex, was originally designed, like most of the late Gothic cathedrals of western Europe, to take the form of a Latin cross.¹ As such, it has a long nave on the west-east axis intersected by a pair of shorter transepts, one to the north and one directly opposite, to the south, about three-quarters of the way between the west entrance and the high altar. This plan was modified by Juan de Herrera to that of a Greek cross, a form with all four arms of equal length. Coincident with this shift in approach, the bell towers at the western end of the church were somewhat reduced in size and the small half-dome intended to stand over the altar was replaced with a full circular dome over the center of the church, where the four arms of the Greek cross meet.

Clearly Juan Bautista de Toledo's experience with the dome of St. Peter's basilica in Rome influenced the design of the dome of San Lorenzo el Real at El Escorial. However, the Roman dome is supported by ranks of tapered Corinthian columns, with their extravagant capitals of acanthus leaves and their elaborately fluted shafts, while the dome at El Escorial, soaring nearly one hundred metres into the air, is supported by four heavy granite piers connected by simple Romanesque arches and decorated by simple Doric pilasters, plain, solid, and largely unprepossessing. It would not be a flight of fancy to interpret St. Peter's as the quintessential expression of the High Renaissance and the basilica at El Escorial as a statement of the stark rigidity and grim purposefulness of the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation.

The most highly-decorated part of the church is the area surrounding the high altar. Behind the altar is a three-tiered reredos, made of red granite and jasper, nearly twenty-eight metres tall, adorned with gilded bronze statuary by Leone Leoni, and three sets of religious paintings commissioned by Philip II. To either side are gilded life-size bronzes of the kneeling family groups of Charles and Philip, also by Leoni with help from his son Pompeo. In a shallow niche at the center of the lowest level is a repository for the physical elements of the communion ceremony, a so-called "House of the Sacrament", designed by Juan de Herrera in jasper and bronze.

To decorate the reredos, or altar screens, the king's preferences were Michelangelo or Titian, but both of these giants were already more than eighty years old and in frail health.² Consequently, Philip consulted his foreign ambassadors for recommendations, and the result was a lengthy parade of the lesser European artists of that time, all swanning through the construction site at El Escorial seeking the king's favor.

¹ The Latin cross, with its long descending arm, is the form most familiar to western Christians as the cross on which Christ was supposed to have been crucified.

² Michelangelo died in 1564, scarcely a year after the first stones at El Escorial were laid, and Titian, when asked to come to Spain, respectfully refused on the basis of his advanced age.

Palace of Philip II

Situated next to the main altar of the Basilica, the residence of King Philip II is made up of a series of austerely decorated rooms. It features a window from which the king could observe Mass from his bed when incapacitated by the gout that afflicted him.

Hall of Battles

Fresco paintings here depict the most important Spanish military victories. These include a medieval victory over the Moors, as well as several of Philip's campaigns against the French.

Pantheon of the Kings

This consists of twenty-six marble sepulchers containing the remains of the kings and ruling queens (the only Queen-Regnant since Philip II was Isabella II), of the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties from Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) to the present, except for Philip V and Ferdinand VI.

The sepulchers also contain the remains of Royal Consorts who were mothers or fathers of Kings. The only King-Consort is Francis of Asis de Bourbon, husband of queen Isabella II. The most recent remains in the sepulcher are those of King Alfonso XIII. Those of his wife, as well as his son Juan de Borbón and daughter-in-law Maria de las Mercedes (the parents of the current king, Juan Carlos I), lie at a prepared place called a pudridero, or decaying chamber.

There are two pudrideros at El Escorial, one for the Pantheon of the Kings and the other for that of the Princes, which can only be visited by monks from the Monastery. In these rooms, the remains of the deceased are placed in a small leaden urn, which in turn will be placed in the marble sepulchers of the pantheon after the passage of fifty years, the estimated time necessary for the complete decomposition of the bodies.

When the remains of Juan de Borbón and Maria Mercedes are deposited in the Royal Pantheon, they will, in a sense, constitute exceptions to tradition. First, the Counts of Barcelona, Don Juan y Doña María de las Mercedes, were never able to reign, due to the institution of the Second Republic and the exile of Alfonso XIII and his entire family, though they are the parents of a King, and their remains are in the Pantheon. Second, the Pantheon also contains the remains of Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, who, although the wife of a King, was never the mother of a King in the strict sense. Some, however, do consider Don Juan to have been de jure King of Spain, which in turn would make Queen Victoria Eugenia the mother of a King. With the interment of Don Juan and Maria's remains, all the sepulchers in the Royal Pantheon will be filled; no decision has yet been announced as to the final resting place of the currently-living members of the Royal Family.

There has already been one exception to this old tradition: Queen Elisabeth of Bourbon is for the moment the only Queen in the pantheon who has not been mother to a King. That is because her only son, the presumed Heir to the Throne, died after her.

The walls of polished Toledo marble are ornamented in gold-plated bronze.

All of the wood used in El Escorial comes from the ancient forests of Sagua La Grande, on the so-called Golden Coast of Cuba.

Pantheon of the Princes

Completed in 1888, this is the final resting place of princes, princesses and queens who were not mothers of kings. With floors and ceiling of white marble, the tomb of Prince John of Austria is especially notable. Currently, thirty-seven of the sixty available niches are filled.

Art Gallery

Consists of works of the German, Flemish, Venetian, Lombard, Ligurian and more Italian and Spanish schools from the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Architectural Museum

Its eleven rooms showcase the tools, cranes and other materials used in the construction of the edifice, as well as reproductions of blueprints and documents related to the project, containing some very interesting facts. , for the Prince of the Asturias, the future Carlos IV]]

Gardens of the Friars

Constructed at the order of Philip II, a great lover of nature, these constitute an ideal place for repose and meditation. Manuel Azaña, who studied in the monastery's Augustinian-run school, mentions them in his Memorias (Memoirs) and his play El jardín de los frailes (The Garden of the Friars). Students at the school still use it today to study and pass the time.


Philip II donated his personal collection of documents to the building, and also undertook the acquisition of the finest libraries and works of Spain and foreign countries. It was planned by Juan de Herrera, who also designed the library’s shelves; the frescoes on the vaulted ceilings were painted by Pellegrino Tibaldi. The library’s collection consists of more than 40,000 volumes, located in a great hall fifty-four meters in length, nine meters wide and ten meters tall with marble floors and beautifully carved wood shelves.

Benito Arias Montano produced the initial catalog for the library, selecting many of the most important volumes. In 1616 he was granted the privilege of receiving a copy of every published work, though there is no evidence that he ever took advantage of this right.

The vault of the library's ceiling is decorated with frescoes depicting the seven liberal arts: Rhetoric, Dialectic, Music, Grammar, Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy.

The reliquaries

Following a rule approved by the Council of Trent dealing with the veneration of saints, Philip II donated to the monastery one of the largest reliquaries in all of Catholicism. The collection consists of some 7500 relics, which are stored in 570 sculpted reliquaries designed by Juan de Herrera. Most of them were constructed by the artisan, Juan de Arfe Villafañe. These reliquaries are found in highly varied forms (heads, arms, pyramidal cases, coffers, etc.) and are distributed throughout the monastery, with the most important being concentrated in the basilica.

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See also

  • La Granjilla de La Fresneda de El Escorial, Madrid
  • Juan Bautista de Toledo
  • Juan de Herrera
  • Philip II of Spain
  • Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
  • Town of El Escorial
  • San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid
  • List of World Heritage Sites in Spain
  • Valle de los Caídos
  • Golden Age
  • Renaissance

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Tips & Hints
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21 June 2019
Really worth a visit. One of the many wonderful historical places in Spain. Half a day to visit the monastery, library, church and Palace, followed by a stroll and lunch near the Ajumento. An A++ day!
Iouri Pereltsvaig
9 September 2014
The library, the altar, 2 crucifixion sculptures by Bernini and Chellini, The last supper by Titian, 2 large pictures by Bosch, and one by Patinir make it a world class museum for art lovers.
Gabriel Pereda
16 August 2015
It has very nice view from any point. And also it is very easy and practical to get there. Mad the way from the train station is verry nice. The food at any restaurant is very good.
Rolando Ando/chefcito
11 February 2017
10 euros el acceso, no dejan tomar fotos sólo en los exteriores, impresionante el monasterio, pero no dejes de recorrer sus jardines externos, son preciosos, cierran a 6pm. Ve con tiempo!
Eduardo Moreno Calero
5 August 2013
El Panteón de Reyes así como el resto del Monasterio (excepto la parte de clausura) se puede visitar con o sin guía.La entrada normal es 10€,reducido de 5€ para estudiantes menores de 25 años.PRECIOSO
Pensar En Psicología
30 May 2018
La arquitectura e historia no tienen comparación, se requiere todo el día para disfrutar todo el recorrido, vale la pena sin la menor duda.
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