This past Saturday, we traveled to El Escorial, a beautiful monastery and palace built in the late 1500s. It is one of the most important sites of the Spanish Renaissance and in 1984, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Built about 30 miles from Madrid, it is situated at the base of the mountain range Sierra de Guadarrama.
King Phillip II hired architect Juan Bautista de Toledo to help him design the palace and monastery after the death of his father, Charles V. The complex was to serve as a family vault and an homage to his other relatives, and a church, symbolizing Spain’s central role in Christianity. Throughout history, it also served as a hospital, museum, library, school, and more. We visited the Basilica, the Royal burial vaults, and the Library. Unfortunately, photographs were not allowed inside the building so pictures included here are of the outside.
The Basilica, boasting a total of 43 altars and chancels, was absolutely beautiful with paintings and marble all over. The dome was inspired by St. Peter’s in the Vatican and is about 95 meters tall. A fan of paintings and the arts, King Phillip had his palace painted with scenes from the Bible so that the city-dwellers, most of whom could not read, were able to learn about Christianity. The vaults in the Basilica were painted by Luca Giordano and depict “The final judgement,” “The death, burial and assumption of the Virgin,” and more, totaling nine frescos. “The Coronation of the Virgin,” painted by Lica Cambiaso, is a 30-meter high fresco and adorns the main chapel. However, the most impressive work was done by Claudio Coello and shows “The Adoration of the Sacred Form.” It is the centerpiece of the Basilica and located over the altarpiece. There are also four large organs, which were built with the intention of all four being played at the same time. However, since the musicians had their backs to each other, it did not quite work in the way King Phillip II was imagining. When the King and Queen were sick, they still wanted to attend mass. So, the King had two doors built on each side of the main altar leading to their respective rooms, allowing them to hear mass when bed-ridden.
Nine meters under the Basilica lie the Royal Vaults, a labyrinth of more than 100 tombs for the royal family. In the Pantheon of Kings is where the remains of the kings and queens rest. In total, there are 26 black marble tombs. Nearby is the Pantheon of Infants, containing 100 tombs and all made of marble. Some of the tombs were really beautiful and depicted those resting in them doing what they loved, such as gardening. However, it was also a little unsettling to see so many tombs in one place.
The last place we saw was the Library, holding books in Latin, Arabic, Greek, and more. In total, El Escorial holds around 40,000 volumes — a statement of power and majesty. Adorning the ceiling are frescoes showing Rhetoric, Dialect, Music, Grammar, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy, which are the seven traditional liberal arts. And, books that are more secular, such as history and botanics, are at the beginning of the library with those more abstract, such as poetry, in the far back. What was even more jaw-dropping was that the books had their spines turned to the inside of the bookcase, with the pages that faced outward painted over with gold.
If you are ever in Madrid and looking for a day-trip, I would definitely suggest visiting El Escorial. The monastery and the palace will not disappoint, even the little “pueblo” that surrounds this enormous complex is picturesque.
Giovanna Sabini-Leite, student blogger primavera 2020