Enjoying a suitably majestic setting in the southern foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial was commissioned by Felipe II as a mausoleum for the tomb of his father, Carlos I. The name commemorates the victory over the French at St Quentin on the Feast of St Laurence, in 1557. Building began in 1563 and, from the outset, the king took a keen interest in the smallest details of the project, even down to the choice of site. The complex was finally completed in 1595 and comprised a basilica, a royal palace, a monastery, a seminary and a library. This stupendous granite monument to the king’s personal aspirations and to the ideals of the Catholic Counter Reformation still inspires awe, if not always affection.
The basílica takes the form of a Greek cross, with vaults decorated with frescoes by Luca Giordano.
Felipe II’s personal quarters appear surprisingly modest – just three simply furnished rooms with whitewashed walls and terracotta tiling. Look out for the hand chair used to carry the gout-ridden king on his last journey here in 1598.
Work on the domed burial chamber directly under the high altar of the basílica, was completed in 1654. The walls were surfaced with marble, bronze and jasper by Giovanni Battista Crescenzi.
The vaulted ceilings were decorated in the 17th century by Italian artists Fabrizio Castello and Nicola Granelo. Hanging from the walls are priceless canvases by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Velázquez and El Greco.
The magnificent barrel vaulted hall has stunning ceiling frescoes by Italian artists. The shelves contain 4,000 precious manuscripts and 40,000 folio volumes arranged facing outwards to allow air to permeate the pages.
Recently restored, this gallery is decorated with superb frescoes by 16th-century Italian artists. The paintings were intended to validate Felipe II’s military campaigns.
Look up from this magnificent staircase to admire the “Glory of the Spanish monarchy” frescoes by Luca Giordano.
Felipe II enjoyed indoor walks in this airy gallery. The meridians on the floor were added in the 18th century.
This courtyard offers the best view of the basílica façade, its twin belltowers and aweinspiring dome. The larger than life statues of Old Testament kings over the portal give the courtyard its name.
This small exhibition of plans, scale models and workmen’s tools explains how El Escorial was constructed. Note the wooden cranes and hoists used to haul the blocks of granite into place.
Before architect Juán Bautista de Toledo was allowed to embark on El Escorial, Felipe gave him precise instructions. He should aim for “simplicity in the construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation.” When Toledo died in 1577, his successor, Juan de Herrera, followed Felipe’s precepts. The design was intended to resemble the iron grid on which St Laurence was roasted alive.
These superb bronze sculptures on either side of the high altar are by an Italian father and son team, Leone and Pompeo Leoni. On the left is Carlos I (Emperor Charles V), shown with his wife, daughter and sisters; opposite is Felipe II, three of his wives and his son, Don Carlos.
It was in this simple canopied bed that Felipe II died on 13 September 1598, it is said as “the seminary children were singing the dawn mass”. The bed was positioned so that the king could easily see the high altar of the basilica on one side and the mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama on the other.
This ethereal work by El Greco (1541–1614) was intended for an altar in the basilica but Felipe II found the style inappropriate and relegated it to the sacristy. El Greco never received another royal commission.
In this stately painting by Dutch artist Antonio Moro, the king, then aged 37, is wearing the suit of armour he wore at the battle of St Quentin in 1557. It was to be Felipe’s only victory on the battlefield.
Florentine master craftsman Benvenuto Cellini sculpted this exquisite image of Christ from a single block of Carrara marble. It was presented to Felipe II in 1562 by Francisco de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.
This moving painting is by 15th-century Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden. Felipe II knew the Netherlands well and was an avid collector of Flemish art.
Venetian artist Titian undertook numerous commissions for El Escorial. Unfortunately this canvas was too big to fit the space assigned to it in the monks’ refectory and was literally cut down to size.
One of the most striking features of the king’s apartments is the superb marquetry of the inlay doors. Made by German craftsmen in the 16th century, they were a gift from Emperor Maximilian II.
A cupboard in the royal bedchamber contains more than a dozen priceless objets d’art . They include a 12th-century chest made in Limoges and a 16th-century “peace plate” by Spanish craftsman Luís de Castillo.
The corridors of El Escorial would have resounded to monastic plainchant but the organ also met with royal approval. This rare hand organ dates from the 16th century and is decorated with Felipe II’s coat of arms.
When Felipe II took over the reins of government from his father Carlos I in 1556, he inherited not only the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, Naples, Sicily, Milan and the Low Countries, but also the territories of the New World. Defending this farflung empire embroiled him in constant warfare. The drain on the royal coffers (despite the prodigious influx of gold and silver from the Americas) led to unpopular tax increases at home and eventual bankruptcy Felipe’s enemies, the Protestant Dutch, their English allies and the Huguenot French, set out to blacken his reputation, portraying him as a cold and bloodthirsty tyrant. Today’s historians take a more objective view, revealing him to have been a conscientious, if rather remote, ruler and a model family man with a wry sense of humour. On one occasion he startled the monks of El Escorial by encouraging an Indian elephant to roam the cloisters and invade the monastic Cells.