THE MONASTERY OF EL ESCORIAL

El Escorial

The Monastery of El Escorial is one of the jewels of Spanish renaissance architecture. It is located just a few kilometres from the capital, in the town of San Lorenzo del Escorial, virtually at the foot of the Madrid Sierra. Its construction was ordered by king Felipe II in 1563 and the works were undertaken in record time. The great building was erected in only 21 years (1584) owing to the king’s interest in seeing it completed in his lifetime.

Felipe II textually told the architect: “I want a palace for God and a hut for the king”, and this is what was done by Juan de Herrera, the architect who oversaw the works. The part inhabited by the king and his family was absolutely austere, with terracotta floors and whitewashed walls covered in Talavera tiling in the lower half. However, in the part intended for the monks, there is an abundance of marble, rich wood and frescoes on the walls. It is striking to see the small office used by Felipe II for working and also the sedan chair he used for travelling over both long and short distances given that his painful gout would often not allow him to walk and he could not endure the rattling of the carriages. He would thus be brought from Madrid on the shoulders of 8 soldiers who would take turns to carry him… the journey would take an entire day. The last one before his death took three days because of the many times they had to stop to allow him to rest, for he was very ill by then.

Here, too, is the pantheon holding the remains of virtually all monarchs to have reigned in Spain since Felipe II. This crypt is situated immediately below the high altar of the basilica. It is at the entrance to the church, underneath the choir, where we can see one of the few flat vaults (some say it is convex) in existence in the world and whose construction gave rise to an anecdote that is a tale for another occasion.

Another jewel in the complex is the spectacular library holding unique specimens. It appears that Felipe II always ordered a copy to be kept of any books the Inquisition had destroyed. Another quirk of this library is that all the books are placed backwards on the shelves, with the leaves facing outwards and painted in gold leaf.

In short, El Escorial is part of Spain’s living history and should be a must-see for anyone visiting Madrid… and of course the same applies to those of us who live here. Because sometimes things are so close to us that we get used to their presence and give no value to them.

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