El Escorial

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El Escorial

El Escorial was built during Spain's "Golden Age"; thus, it is an enduring symbol of Spain's dominating position in Europe during the 16th century. It was the creation of Philip II, one of Spain's greatest rulers, who is buried in the crypt. Being both a palace and a monastery, it illustrates the perfect union of religion and culture in Spanish history. The severe, simple style of the building expresses the asceticism and self-discipline of Spanish Catholicism. Most of Spain's kings are buried here.

How El Escorial came to be built  In the 16th century, Spain was at war with France. The Spanish won a great victory over the French in the Battle of San Quentin (1557). This battle took place on the Feast Day of St. Lawrence (San Lorenzo). To honor Spain's success in this battle, Philip II built the palace-monastery of El Escorial. It was dedicated to St. Lawrence. St. Lawrence was an early Christian who was martyred by the Romans — tradition says, by being roasted alive on a square gridiron. Because El Escorial was dedicated to St. Lawrence, the building was shaped to resemble a gridiron (the emblem of St. Lawrence) — basically four walls forming a perfect square, with towers at each corner.

Philip II's life in El Escorial  Philip II was a deeply pious Catholic. For him, El Escorial was not only a palace — like Louis XIV's Versailles — but also a religious shrine. Thus, it became his favorite residence, a place apart from the bustle of Madrid, where he could meditate, attend Mass, and find peace of soul. He would commute from Madrid to El Escorial by sedan chair (it is on display inside); the trip took about three days. He attended Mass every day. When he was ill, he still wanted to see the Mass being celebrated, and so he arranged the palace so that his bedroom was next to the Chapel. A little square was cut out of the wall, enabling him to see the altar from his bed. (This square can still be seen in Philip's bedroom.) Philip's brand of Catholicism was highly ascetic. He wanted to live like an ordinary monk — simply and without ceremony. Thus, the interior design of El Escorial is very plain and Spartan. A few of the rooms have tapestries that cover the stone walls; others have nothing. Furniture is spare and functional. What decorations there are are mainly suits of armor, spears, and shields. Philip's rooms look like monastic cells. it was in this ascetic and Spartan atmosphere that Philip II planned the Armada against England. The Armada was to be a great religious crusade to win England back to the Church. Philip II assured the Pope that England would be his in a matter of months. Ironically, Philip's religious motivation contributed to the failure of the Armada. Why? Because Philip spent as much money for priests and religious ceremonies on board the ships as he did on armaments. Tactical decisions were made on the basis of religious conviction rather than military know-how. The result, as we know, was a catastrophic failure. This defeat haunted Philip for the rest of his life; he retired into permanent gloom and meditation. Finally he died (1598) while at El Escorial, and was buried there.

Important features inside the El Escorial  The Royal Mausoleum is the underground crypt where most of Spain's kings and queens are buried. It is the one place in El Escorial which is opulent. Walls and floors are made of marble. Coffins are stacked floor to ceiling, with empty places for future kings. The Library contains hundreds of books, Bibles, missals, and manuscripts collected by Spain's kings. Among the collection is the diary of St. Theresa, handwritten in 16th-century Spanish. The books are put on the shelves backwards (with the spine facing in) to preserve the gold lettering on the titles.

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