The Escorial


               Philip II’s grand design for the glory of God and empire


 Every messenger reaching the King of Spain's campaign headquarters swelled the scope of the success. The entire French force was destroyed at Saint-Quentin, half of it killed or wounded, the other half taken prisoner or on the run. The king's exultant generals, including the Duke of Savoy, were all for pressing on through the hundred undefended miles to Paris and wiping the French monarchy, a hereditary enemy, off the map. Philip II, whose official nickname was Prudentissimus, was not so sure. Great things were possible, he wrote to his father that evening, but characteristically he added "si no falta dinero" (provided the money holds out).

Of course it did not hold out, as it never seemed to when he needed it most. Philip was the richest man in the world. Every year his fleets brought him immense cargoes of silver and gold from the conquered kingdoms of the New World. But this was the 16th century; nobody had quite invented central banks or paper money. All that bright bullion pouring ashore in Cadiz seemed to ooze and trickle away between there and the battlefield. Master of half the world, Philip was at that moment short on cash and credit. Who was going to pay for the fodder for the hundreds of horses that would be needed to drag his guns over the wretched roads from Saint-Quentin to Paris?

So the battle, though it brought enormous prestige to the Spanish Army and led to a peace that lopped off a few towns from the kingdom of France, had no profound influence on European history. But it did lead to the creation of one of the great European monuments.

The battle was fought on the feast day of Saint Lawrence, August 10, 1557; during the fighting Philip's artillery set fire to the church of Saint Lawrence in Saint-Quentin. Being an extremely devout monarch, Philip ascribed his victory at Saint-Quentin to the intercession of this saint, martyred during the Roman persecutions by being roasted alive on a gridiron, and ordered that his bones be rescued from the burning church. He then resolved to dedicate what would become the greatest building project of his reign to Saint Lawrence.

The site was chosen with great care, near the little mining village of El Escorial (Escorial has a lilting sound but means slag heap) close to the geographic center of Spain. It was high enough in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama to have cool clean air in summer, as well as a splendid view stretching 30 miles across the dry, dusty Castilian plain to Philip's new capital city of Madrid. The mountains were full of wild pigs and deer for Philip to hunt, and good, hard, pyrite-flecked granite to be quarried nearby. It was a place for grandeur and solitude, a place where Philip could govern his empire and commune with his God. The building was called San Lorenzo de El Escorial and it was meant to stand alone on the mountainside, free from the ordinary distractions of courts and cities —the bustling summer resort that now sprawls at its feet was the product of a later, laxer century.

The king had two architects of genius, Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera. From beginning to end, though, Philip watched over and approved every step of El Escorial's design and construction: the ground plan—a gridiron, to recall the instrument of Saint Lawrence's torture—as well as the unornamented, monumental style of its buildings.

Philip's plan began with one of the dying wishes of his father, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor: a suitably somber and majestic crypt in which, from his death onward, all the kings of Spain might be buried. Above the crypt Philip wanted a church. Around the church, in a great rectangle, he wanted a royal palace, a monastery, a library, a hospital and a center of learning. It was an immense undertaking, with 6-foot-thick walls, 9 towers, 88 fountains, 2,618 windows and 14 interior courtyards. The church in its center was really a private chapel for the king and his family, high officials of the court and resident monks of the order of Saint Jerome, but Philip wanted it to have a dome resembling that of St. Peter's in Rome.

The workers were well organized, well disciplined and well paid. Diego Suarez, one of the great adventurers of that age of adventure, writing his memoirs as an old man, recalled el buen plato, the good food that was served. No gambling or swearing was permitted on the construction site. The architects and engineers used laborsaving machinery like two-wheeled cranes and ingenious building methods such as working the stone at the quarry and transporting it direct to its proper place. The job was completed by 1584, in the incredibly short time of 21 years, and the result was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world. Posterity would not be kind to the king or to his creation. For reasons of state and religion he did some dreadful things, but he did not seem to enjoy doing them. Many historians of the past 400 years, especially those writing in English, have had an anti-Spanish or anti-Catholic bias, and they have done their best to turn this most Spanish and Catholic of monarchs into some kind of monster. He was regularly portrayed as a pitiless, bigoted persecutor, who loved to see heretics writhing in the fire. They have painted him as the murderer of his own son (the Don Carlos characterized as a tragic hero in Schiller's play and Verdi's opera), who in real life was a homicidal maniac and whose death, though mysterious, is no longer generally attributed to Philip. With justice he has been blamed for the execution of the noble Flemish patriots Count Egmont and Count Horn, and made responsible for the assassination of William of Orange; but he has been question- ably described as the would-be murderer of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and of his third wife, Elizabeth of Valois, whom he loved dearly and who actually died in childbirth. (He was, as a matter of fact, a devoted family man, tender and courteous to all his wives, even the temperamental frump Mary Tudor, Queen of England and Ireland from 1553-58 and still known as Bloody Mary.) He has also been viewed as a dull, plodding, bloodless bureaucrat who sat spiderlike in a dark cell weaving evil plots, who squandered the riches of Spain on grandiose projects like the “Invincible Armada” and the palace of the Escorial, leaving his country impoverished, depopulated, doomed to decay.

 El Escorial's own reputation has hardly fared better. Art critics have often found it bare and sterile. In the middle of the 19th century a sprightly Argentine exile reported smugly that not 20 visitors a week came to this “barbarous and somber” pile, which Philip had constructed with the “sweat of Spain and the booty of war ... so that two hundred friars could sing a miserere over freedom of thought, which he had assassinated.” Baedeker, the guidebook from which generations of earnest 19th- and 20th-century tourists learned the proper opinions about the art of Europe, condemned the Escorial for lacking the divine spark.. . . Philip II had the misfortune of belonging to an epoch which shone neither for creative force nor for taste.”

Today we are not quite so censorious of 16th-century people for behaving in 16th-century ways. Thousands of visitors tramp through the Escorial every week, except those parts of it that still function as monastery and institution of higher learning. Tourists need feel no shame about admiring what is now recognized universally as a unique architectural masterpiece. They also—thanks to an ongoing exhibition opened in 1984 by Spain's Patrimonio Nacional to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the building's completion—can learn about the techniques of its construction, admire its treasures and gain some insight into the complex mind of its builder.

You can follow Philip II's life by looking at the portraits done of him, from the elegant Renaissance prince of 24 who posed for Titian in 1551, to the hollow-cheeked old man of the last years, dressed in somber black. None of the portraits reveals very much about his inner feelings, for Philip had been taught by Charles V to trust no one, and he became a master at keeping his thoughts and his plans secret. He was not an extrovert or daring combatant like his father. But he was enormously conscientious, doggedly faithful to his country and his church, and did his backbreaking duty as king for 42 years without a word of complaint.

Critics tend to overlook the sheer scale of the job thrust upon him when he was still in his 20s. He was lord and master of what today would be called a super- power. There were two superpowers in the 16th century—Turkey in the East, Spain in the West. Like his contemporary, Suleyman the Magnificent, Philip was responsible for running a huge multinational empire. His titles take up line after line on official documents: King of Castile, of Aragon, of Portugal, of the Indies (that is, most of Central and South America), of Jerusalem, of the Two Sicilies, Duke of Milan, Duke of Burgundy, Count of Flanders, Count of Holland— the list goes on and on. Just getting the news of what was happening in all these places took a maddening length of time, a minimum of two weeks from Brussels or Naples, six months from the Philippines, which in 1542 had been named for the 15-year-old heir to the throne by the Spanish explorer Lopez de Villalobos. Every year he had to worry about the possibility of famine, plague, a Turkish invasion. He had to worry about Protestant rebellion in the Netherlands, Moorish rebellion in the south of Spain, Algerian pirates in the Mediterranean, English pirates in the Atlantic. He had to worry about his uncle Ferdinand I, the new Holy Roman Emperor, who had succeeded Charles V but was soft on heresy. He had to worry about religion and religious wars.

In an age when some rulers changed religion as easily as they did their coats, he was stubbornly faithful to the Roman Catholic Church. But what could he do about his slippery sister-in-law Elizabeth of England? She was a heretic, which was bad, but if he got rid of her, the throne would go to Mary Stuart, a good Catholic but married to a Frenchman, which was worse. When the cantankerous old Pope Paul IV called him a “putrid member” and “that little beast” and tried to take Naples away from him, what could he do but send an army against Rome?

He had to worry about the Indians in his new American domains. It had been decided that they had souls, but how best could they be saved? How could he support the monastic orders he sent there to convert them?

He always had to worry about money. Three times the mighty King of Spain had to declare himself bankrupt.

No wonder he took his time about making decisions. Time and I can take on any other two, he liked to say. Historians have made fun of him for procrastinating his way past opportunities like that given him by the victory at Saint-Quentin. But he had his spectacular successes too, like the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, in which a Spanish fleet, with those of Venice and the Papal States, under his bastard brother Don John of Austria, destroyed the Turkish navy. It took considerable talent just to hold all his scattered dominions together during 42 years of war and crisis. When he died, in 1598, he left his son Philip III more territory than any other man has reigned over before or since.

In his quiet way he understood that such immense domains could not be ruled by the sword, as his father had tried to do by riding with his armies back and forth across Europe and even crossing to North Africa to besiege Tunis. He worked out for himself the way the modern state would have to be run – by paper. Every day, whatever other ceremonials required his royal presence – dances, bullfights, autos-da-fé – he spent hours reading state papers, recommendations by his council, reports from his spies, petitions from his subjects. They came to him on folio sheets with very wide margins, which he filled with scrawled notes, observations, corrections, suggestions and commands.


As king he felt duty-bound to be interested in everything. He tells his ambassador in Rome to tell the Pope to mind his own business. He specifies the amount of lace to be worn on the court costumes of counts and barons. He warns the Duke of Medina Sidonia, commander of the Invincible Armada, that the English ships will unchivalrously fire cannonballs at him in- stead of closing in to fight it out with cold steel (but unfortunately he does not tell the Duke what to do about it). He approves the export of some Andalusian horses. He devises a detailed scenario for handling the Baron Montigny, a Flemish rebel convicted of high treason: garrote him in his prison cell, announce that he has died of fever, give him a handsome burial with 700 royal masses for the repose of his soul. He corrects his secretaries' errors of geography and spelling.

It was too much for any one man to do, but he did it anyway. He preferred doing it in the Escorial because, far away from the distractions of Madrid, he could get through four times as much paperwork in a day. It was a place mainly for work and prayer.

If it was the king's workplace, he regarded it as belonging first to God and second to Philip, and he made sure God got the lion's share of everything. Rising dramatically from the mountainside, the palace might have been expected to have its main facade facing the plain, to overawe visitors riding up from Madrid. Philip would have none of that; the church had to be oriented in the traditional way so the priest at the altar faced east, toward Bethlehem and Calvary. If that meant cramping the main entrance by putting it in the west wall facing the mountains, that was what had to be done. The church, built in the form of a Greek cross and surmounted by an immense cupola and dome, is central to the complex. The king's quarters are in an outthrust of the church on the east side.

Like the builders of the Italian Renaissance, Philip and his architects were seeking the classical harmonies of ancient Greek and Roman temples. The biggest courtyard in the Escorial, the one leading up to the church, measures 210 feet by 126 feet, the measurements given by the Roman architect Vitruvius as ideal for a space of this sort. The builders were going back beyond Vitruvius, however. They were heirs to a mystical tradition holding that the Universe is built on number and proportion. In the ceiling of the library is a painting showing ancient sages, Pythagoreans and naked gymnosophists of India constructing anima, the human soul, out of numbers.

Introducing these ideas to Spain was a revolutionary step. Traditionally, Spaniards – much of whose country had been occupied by the Moors for 700 years – covered their buildings with extravagant Moorish-style ornament. But here in the dry heartland of Castile, Philip was speaking for another Spain --austere, proud, dignified, devout. He wanted a building stripped to geometric essentials. Long before Mies van der Rohe, he had decided that less could be more. The Escorial is all cubes, spheres and pyramids —cubes symbolizing the solidity of the Earth; spheres symbolizing the perfection of heaven; pyramids, in the form of lines rising and converging to an invisible point, forming a connection between the two.

The south facade is a long, bare rectangle with 286 windows in regular rows. A window pattern on this scale is almost bound to be boring, even in the Versailles of Philip's great-grandson Louis XIV, even in the Seagram Building. But Juan de Herrera, with his subtle spacing of the rows of windows and the cornice overhanging the second row, the arcades upholding the terrace at the foot of the wall, the reflecting pool, conveys a sense of movement. The eye of the beholder is carried along as by a slow, formal Spanish dance.

The bareness of Escorial's facade was an exact reflection of the king's personal style. His bedroom and study, just off to the right of the high altar, are brick- floored and as austere as possible, with a door opening into the church, which itself is all aflame with marble, jasper, bronze and gold. The retable behind the altar was meant to be the most magnificent in the world, soaring 86 feet, with paintings in swirling dramatic colors by artists of the Italian Mannerist school.

There was no contradiction in Philip's mind between austerity and magnificence. In the palace, the throne he sat on was deliberately bare and simple, a campstool that his father had taken around on his campaigns. But the long hall leading to the throne room was lined with elaborate, specially commissioned paintings of some of his own most important battles.

Philip was a connoisseur of painting. When the monks of the Escorial sat down to supper in their refectory, Titian's Last Supper looked down on them from the wall. Philip was a patron of Titian's, as had been his father, and the king corresponded with the painter regularly and bought a number of paintings.

Philip's art collection, some of it inherited, was remarkably catholic. Next to Titian, he loved the often erotic, mystical fancies and sour human observation of Hieronymus Bosch. And when he wanted a picture and couldn't get it, he sometimes had it copied, meticulously and full size, and shipped to the Escorial. Whenever a collection was put on sale in Europe, his agents were there. He commissioned two El Grecos and collected a number of Northern Renaissance masters, among them Bosch, Hans Baldung Grien and Quentin Metsys. Even after being plundered by Napoleon, and after more than 150 of its paintings were carted off to the Prado in Madrid, the Escorial remains one of the world's great museums.

The salubrious air of the Escorial has done wonders for the works of art, which over the years have not had to suffer from the ailments common in polluted urban centers. Some of the palace rooms have been redone in elegant 18th-century style to please Bourbon kings who found Philip's structure too grim to suit them.

These rooms contain their own treasures, including a superb series of tapestries created in the late 18th century illustrating daily life in Spain and woven from cartoons by the young Goya.

In the great vaulted hall of the library, with its frescoes by Pellegrino Tibaldi, the same air has kept the leaves of the books crisp and easy to turn for the past 400 years. It is probably the only library in the world today where books are put on shelves with their spines against the wall (common practice in the 16th century), so that clean mountain air can seep more easily between the gilded pages. When Philip assembled it, it was the greatest library in Europe, with some 4,000 volumes of his own and 5,000 more that he had gathered from monasteries and palaces around Spain. Many of its collections, including medieval Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts, are unique, so to this day scholars have kept coming. It also contains a large number of works that were condemned by the Inquisition. Had Philip not saved them, they might have disappeared entirely.

He has often been described as a prince of darkness, but the Escorial shows how much he loved light. Two rows of windows flood the library with sunshine in early morning and early evening, the best hours for study. Clear windows in the giant cupola light every corner of the church. The 14 interior courtyards, of varying proportions and sizes, make sure that every room in the palace, college or monastery receives its fair share. The sun was a physical blessing. The king insisted that the monks get the southern part of the building so they would be a bit warmer in winter.


The Escorial was a spiritual symbol of the faith he was sworn to uphold, the one that the Council of Trent had proclaimed to be the one true faith, quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus (because it was believed in forever and everywhere and by all men). It was also an ideal place from which to rule over half the world strictly according to the rules. It was hardly Philip's fault that the rules were changing. By the 16th century, the one true faith was no longer believed ab omnibus. It had been replaced by, in Philip's view, the detestable Protestant formula Cujus regio ejus religio (Each state to the religion of its ruler). And, though no one realized it at the time, the day of the 16th-century superpowers (sometimes known as the Age of Kings) was over. Spain and Turkey might continue to dazzle the world for another century or so but they had neither the manpower, nor the resources, nor the tough mercantile mentality needed to maintain themselves as great powers in the modem world. The Mediterranean, which was the center of their vital interests and had been the center of the civilized world for many centuries, was being turned into a backwater.

The struggle for the future control of the globe had moved north and west to troublesome countries that Philip did not understand. He had learned to hate the English climate in the three years when, by his marriage to Mary Tudor, he had been titular King of England. He hated the beefy, beer-guzzling nobles of Germany and the Netherlands who expected him to join in their swinish revels. He hated sending his men to fight a never-ending war against the Dutch in a gloomy land where, as one of his soldiers wrote, “there grows neither thyme, nor lavender, figs, olives, melons, or almonds . . . where dishes are prepared, strange to relate, with butter from cows instead of oil.” Some historians have argued that the empire might have been easier to control if Philip had moved his capital to Lisbon or to Brussels where he and future monarchs would have been closer to the sea routes of the Atlantic. But he was never tempted.

Were he to come back to life today, he would not be pleased by most of 20th-century culture, but he would be happy that monks are still meditating and chanting in the Escorial, and that the college he founded is still in operation – its most distinguished graduate today is Juan Carlos, King of Spain, Philip's descendant in the 14th generation.

Philip was active, still filling the margins of his state papers, still hunting, into his 71st year. When his gouty leg swelled up to become useless and infection began to attack his arms, he said, Since I must go to the Escorial anyway to fill my tomb, I might as well go there to die. He had himself carried on a litter, seven miserable, jolting days from Madrid.

A king's death was a public event in those days, like his birth and marriage, and for Philip it was only one more official ceremony to be gone through. His sufferings went on for 14 weeks and they were atrocious, his limbs rotting away, the doctors not daring to treat them or bandage them because of the pain, the smell so bad that courtiers found any excuse to stay away.

He bore it without murmur, keeping open the little door to the church so he could hear the monks chanting for the salvation of his soul.