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Visit El Escorial

Updated on September 16, 2010

El Escorial is a 16th century Spanish monastery built by Philip II at the barren foot of the Sierra de Guadarrama, about 30 miles (48 km) northwest of Madrid. Its name derives from the escorias (slag) of nearby iron mines. The severely classical structure is a monument of Spanish architecture and a repository of art treasures.


Philip II planned El Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial primarily as a Hieronymite monastery to commemorate his victory over the French at St. Quentin on St. Lawrence's Day (August 10, 1557). He also meant it to serve as the royal pantheon desired by his father, Charles V; as a library for scriptural study; as a school;  and as a quiet palace retreat.

The Italian-trained architect Juan Bautista de Toledo began the southern wing in 1563. On his death in 1567, his assistant, Juan de Herrera, took over the rest of the project, completing it in 1584. Philip frequently visited the building site and lived in the palace until his death. The monastery, enriched by his successors, remained a royal residence until the 19th century.

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The ground plan of the El Escorial is a huge rectangle 680 feet x 530 feet (200 meters x 160 meters) subdivided into interior rectangles, with towers at the corners. The plan has been said to symbolize the grid on which St. Lawrence was martyred. The structure is dominated by a monastic church. To the south are the monks' quarters and a cloister. To the north are the school and palace. The whole complex is in a sober, heavy, desomamentado (unadorned) style based on Italian Renaissance forms. It reflects Philip's asceticism and his desire in a time of religious crisis to unite the stability of the Catholic past with a future enlightened by humanism.

The domed church with its severe Doric facade and Greek-cross floor plan recalls Bramante's first design for St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The interior, by contrast, was sumptuously decorated by Spanish and Italian artists of the decadent mannerist school. A light-filled trompe I'oeil (eye deceiving) extravaganza by Luca Giordano covers the ceiling. Gilded bronze figures by Leone and Pompeo Leoni adorn the main altar and form the funerary monuments of Charles V and Philip II. Beneath the church is the octagonal pantheon, completed in 1654, housing the black marble sarcophagi of most of the Spanish kings.

Although many paintings have been transferred to Madrid, there remain an impressive number of Velazquez, Ribera, Titian, Tintoretto, and El Greco. The library contains about 40,000 rare books and many important early Christian, Arabic, and Mozarabic manuscripts.


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    • Bits-n-Pieces profile image

      Bits-n-Pieces 7 years ago

      I know what you mean. But isn't the icing usually on the outside? :D

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow- just seeing the monastery on its own would be fun... the famous paintings on the inside are icing on the cake!