On Saint-Lawrence's Day, August 10, 1557, the Spanish troops took hold of the town of Saint-Quentin in the North of France. During the siege, the church of Saint-Lawrence was totally destroyed. To commemorate this victory, the King of Spain, Philip II committed himself to found a new church dedicated to this martyr saint who was roasted on a gridiron. Philip decided to erect a church that would be used as a mausoleum for the Spanish Kings, thus respecting a wish his father Charles V had written on his will. As its name clearly indicates, the "Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial" was not only a church and a pantheon for the kings, it was also a monastery and a royal palace. El Escorial may be considered the stone symbol of Counter-Reformation and Inquisition, whose King of Spain was a fervent partisan. In the centre of a vast square of buildings was the church whereas in Versailles, it is Louis XIV bed that occupied the central place. From his own private room, in which he died in 1598, King Philip II could see the main altar of the church.
El Escorial was built a century before Versailles in a mountainous and desertic region, at a distance of 50 kilometeres from Madrid. The buildings are in greyish granite and form a gigantic square around the monastery and church. Construction began under supervison of architect Juan Bautista de Toledo in 1563 and was continued by his successor Juan de Herrera. In 1584, the palace was completed by Antonio Villascastin, a collaborator of both previous architects. The king had requested Herrera "a simplicity in the shape, a severity in the whole, majesty without ostentation". The mausoleum where most Spanish Sovereigns were buried was completed during the reign of Philip IV (1605-1665). The tombs of Philip II and his father Charles V, the emperor of the huge Habsburg Empire, are there.
Although Philip II wanted an austere palace, known as "desornamento" in Spanish (without decoration), he, however, ordered a Battles Room where his feats of arms were depicted on the tapestries of the walls. The Royal Apartments are above this enormous construction. This part of the palace is sometimes called "the handle" since the plan of the edifices may be considered a symbolic representation of the gridiron on which Saint-Lawrence died. For some historians, the plan, quite common in Byzantine and Arabic constructions, would be based upon Flavius Josephus' description of the Temple of Solomon. The inner courtyards are similar to those of the Alhambra of Grenada and Alcazar of Seville. The stark palace reflects the expression of the rigid underlying principles of the reign of Philip II, that is authority of State, unity of Faith and public order, in other words the image of grim Inquisition.
The palace had a great influence on Spanish architecture. The austerity can also be seen in the King's Apartments whose simplicity contrasts with the very rich collections of art showed in the rooms decorated by the Bourbons, in the museums, church, chapter-house, royal pantheon and library. A massive altar by Herrera overlooks the choir framed by Charles V and Philip II cenotaphs. The Library includes 40,000 volumes among which Philip II's personal collection. A book of poems that belonged to Alphonso X the Wiseman, is part of the manuscripts displayed under the magnificent ceiling by Tibaldi (XVIth century). In the chapter-house can be found frescoes. The "Patio de Los Evangelistas" houses a small temple by Herrera, tha patio is not open as in normal usage but closed adding a touch of severity. In the Museum of Art, the Calvary painted by Rogier Van der Weyden is one of the gems presented here along with Italian, Flemish and Spanish paintings. El Escorial was listed a World Heritage Site in 1984.
El Escorial, gridiron-shaped as a reference to Saint-Lawrence's martyr.
Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8e/Vistaescorial.jpg
The Patio of the Evangelists and temple by Herrera.
Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ad/Evangelg.jpg
Ceiling in the Main Stairway. frescoes by Luca Giordano. Charles V and Philip II have the features of Saint-Lawrence's companions.
Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/28/Ceilling_Church_San_Lorenzo_de_El_Escorial.jpg
Nave and main altar of the basilica.
Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1f/Bas%C3%ADlicaElEscorialNave.jpg
Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2d/Escorial_Bibliot%C3%A9ca.jpg