El Escorial

Beginning in 1563, Philip II oversaw the construction of El Escorial, which was intended to be both a royal palace and a monastery for the Hieronymite Order of monks, exclusive to the Iberian peninsula.[1] The plans had been handed down from his father, Charles V, as a part of an elaborate tomb for himself and the Empress Isabella. Philip had recently established Madrid as the capitol city of Spain, meaning that Philip needed a palace nearby at which to hold court. He decided that El Escorial could serve both of these purposes. The compound was dedicated to the Spanish Christian martyr St. Lawrence, and housed an order of monks as well as the court of Philip II.

The very construction of El Escorial was a testament in and of itself to the religious piety of Philip II. The compound is shaped like a grill; it relates to the story of St. Lawrence, who was killed by being burned on a grill.[2]

Arial View of El Escorial


This image shows the layout of El Escorial, as well as the opulence of the compound, which was carved entirely out of granite. This again shows the dedication of Philip to the Catholic church, and his deeply religious nature, which influenced his reign.

In addition to the exterior of El Escorial, the basilica was decorated by Philip with a great deal of religious art. It served the royal family for their worship; as they lived and held court at El Escorial, the mass in the basilica was an extremely important part of daily life for Philip and his family. The decoration was carried out by Juan de Herrera, and completed in 1584.[4] There were a number of frescoes throughout the basilica, and all were religiously themed. Many of them were designed by Spanish artists, though there were also some Italian artists involved in the design as well.

One such work was Juan Fernandez de Navarette’s St. John and St. Matthew. The work is a part of the altar of the evangelists in the basilica; Navarrete painted many other saints in the same area of the basilica.[5]


This image of the interior of El Escorial shows the intricacy of the compound, as well as some of the artwork which Navarette and Herrera designed and painted over the course of nearly twenty years. The intricacy of the architecture and of the artwork itself acts as a type of religious worship and piety from the king. Philip poured a great deal of money into El Escorial, as well as the commissioning of artwork to decorate the palace after it was finished. This shows his devotion to the Catholic church, as one of the most elaborate parts of the compound is the basilica. Philip assigned a great deal of importance to the existence of the Catholic saints that cover the basilica; at the time, they were at the heart of Catholic theology so their presence in El Escorial is very important.[7]

[1] Rosemarie Mulcahy, The Decoration of the Royal Basilica of El Escorial (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 2.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Escorial, View of the Exterior, ARTstor, JPG file, http://library.artstor.org.ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/library/secure/ViewImages?id=4iFCeTg4NCciJy8laCt2KngqXXgqdVJ6fCo%3D&userId=hzRAcw%3D%3D&zoomparams=.

[4] Mulcahy, 5.

[5] Ibid, 24.

[6] Juan de Herrera, 1595,  El Escorial: Royal Palace and Monastery, JPEG file, ARTstor, http://library.artstor.org.ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/library/secure/ViewImages?id=%2BThTcigjKiddLy84cjF6Rg%3D%3D&userId=hzRAcw%3D%3D&zoomparams=.

[7] Mulcahy, 14.

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  14. […] Something clicked regarding Spain when I finally visited the Escorial outside of Madrid after many months of being in that city.  It’s a grand castle of course, but it also struck me as rather plain, barracks-like at times.  Very austere.  It was explained that the Escorial was both a royal palace and a monastery: […]

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  19. addahir says:

    when was it built?
    What materials was it built with?
    Why was it built?
    Who lived in there?
    What is the palace used for today?
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  20. […] Something clicked regarding Spain when I finally visited the Escorial outside of Madrid after many months being in that city.  It’s a grand castle of course, but it also struck me as rather plain, barracks-like at times.  Very austere.  It was explained that the Escorial was both a royal palace and a monastery: […]

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