Spain Travel – The Escorial

FATE decreed that Philip II should come to power at the moment when Spain was enjoying her full flood of fortune. Her empire was the broadest that the sun shone upon. Her colonies were the richest in any European monarch’s possession. Her navy was the proudest in the world. Her zeal for the Roman Church was unbounded and fanatical. The tendency toward grandiose ideas had not been reduced, to say the least, by the imperial connection of Charles V, despite the final abdication of that potentate and his humble retirement to a monastery.

All these elements entered naturally into the character of Philip, and the religious fanaticism not least of all. He speedily became the glass of austerity and the mould of gloom ; and as the years wore on these qualities appear to have increased, crystallizing in his most imposing monument, — a building thoroughly impressed with these dominant peculiarities. Of course it was a mausoleum, for even in Isabella’s day the building of tombs was a favorite pastime of Spanish royalty ; but if any attempt were ever made to give it a royal name, it has dismally failed, and to-day men still call it El Escorial, from the heaps of cinders and slag (scoria) left by ancient iron-miners on the site selected by the king for the burial of his own royal ashes.

Despite the fact that many had come away from the Escorial expressing their disappointment in it, architecturally and otherwise, we found ourselves drawn irresistibly thither by the magic of its morbid spell. And it was on a bright morning, quite out of harmony with Philip’s character, that we wended our way down to the Estaciôn del Norte in quest of the morning train. It was our first acquaintance with the great northern terminal, but in the next few days we became excessively familiar with it. Lying in the deep ravine immediately behind the palace gardens and not far from the Manzanares, it is a less ornate station than the Atocha, but nevertheless is a fine and commodious building, whence radiate the lines of steel that serve the north of Spain and lead direct to Paris.

We found the railway journey to the Escorial not to be particularly interesting. It took us out into the narrow vale of the inconsequent river, up the lower slopes of a barren steppe beyond, through numerous starveling outposts of Madrid, whose pretentious villas commonly bore signs announcing that they were for sale at fabulous bargains, and at last, by dint of steady climbing, ascended into the foothills of the Guadarramas, whose rugged and snow-clad summits had drawn steadily nearer until now they hung directly above our heads. The mountains, indeed, had been the one feature of interest as we rode along, for the plain itself was as uninviting as we had found it on the rainy road to Toledo. Today, however, was bright and fair, and the air was cool and crisp. The traveling public leaned forth as one man from its compartment windows, and snuffed the fine freshness of the upland morning.

At Villalba, an unattractive hill town about twenty-four miles from Madrid, the railway divided, one line climbing directly into the mountain passes that lead to Segovia while the other proceeded more leisurely along an undulating highland to the Escorial, postponing its ascent of the mountain barrier for an hour or two, and finally disappearing around a shoulder of the mountain wall in the direction of Avila. To any person bent on seeing all these points, — and none should be omitted, — it is easily possible to combine all three in one’s northward journey without a tedious reduplication of railway rides ; and in order that others need not discover this fact too late, as we did, by costly and tiresome experience, let me drop a passing hint as to how it may best be done. Postpone the entire trip until you have wearied of Madrid and are perfectly ready to leave that city for good; and then take the “rapide” for Segovia, where one may spend a night or two very comfortably in a decent, though primitive, hotel. Then — if you don’t mind rising at gray dawn — return as far as Villalba on the early morning train, which makes a good connection for the Escorial. There is abundant comfort there for another night at the Fonda Miranda. On the next morning, — for a day will probably suffice nearly any one for seeing the Escorial, — one may, without too early rising, journey comfortably over to Avila in time for luncheon.

The monastery of the Escorial – for it still seems as much a monastery as a palace— is visible from afar, but curiously enough is best seen thus from the Segovia line. The road that actually takes you to it runs through so many intervales and up-land pastures that the great gray structure is long concealed from view by intervening hillocks and does not burst upon the sight until the train has nearly reached the station. Even from a distance it is all that its most severe critics have claimed for it, a gigantic granite building that resembles nothing so much as a huge national penitentiary. It stands half-way up a long slope, above an ascending park of waving trees. Behind it towers a ridge of naked hills composed of the same cheerless rock as that from which the Escorial is built. A few straggling buildings, including a factory of some sort, surround the station, forming the lower village. Higher up on the hillside, and clustering around the great bulk of the palace, is a more considerable hamlet, more prosperous in appearance, which is Escorial de Arriba, the upper town.

Now the maps which embellish the guidebooks are misleading. One might say, as we did, after glancing at them that the distance to the upper village and the palace was inconsiderable, and that to reach it meant no more than a leisurely walk through the woods. As a matter of fact, it means a rather arduous walk of a steep and dusty mile. As for the park, it is inexorably barred ; and while there are trees lining the highroad, they are not full grown, and afford but meagre shade. It follows that none but a vigorous pedestrian can well afford to ignore the claims of the numerous omnibuses that offer their services so clamorously at the salida, or exit, of the station. We ourselves did ignore them, but almost nobody else followed suit; and as a result we dragged tediously up the hillside, passed now and then by clattering teams of tough and scrawny mules at full gallop, which enveloped us in a dense cloud of dust. The warmth of the forenoon sun made itself felt, and the gray bulk of the Escorial almost seemed to recede. When at last we reached it, the shade cast by its mighty sides along the broad and level esplanade was grateful in the extreme.

Some thoughtful person had recommended the Fonda Miranda, and this had put us on our guard against the loitering army of hotel touts at the station and around the upper gates. But one lame man, representing some other inn, persisted in following us despite all attempts to discourage him, and it proved rather fortunate that he did so. Otherwise we might easily have missed altogether the death-chamber of the kings, which is by all odds the most interesting and impressive sight at the Escorial. For be it known that they have a reprehensible habit there of opening certain portions of the establishment only at certain hours, and what is still more confusing, the time-table is subject to change and corrections without notice. Wherefore the first thing to be done on reaching the spot is to find out what arrangement is in effect at the moment. Our self-appointed guide knew that it was almost the hour for closing the mausoleum, although the morning train had but just come in; and he hurried us through the vast and awesome courts of the building, into the lofty church in its midst, and down a dark and echoing corridor to a huge door, before which many people were gathered. Repeated thunderings at that stern portal brought no response until the preceding party had seen everything to its satisfaction. Then came a priest to let them out and let us in.

We mustered some thirty strong as we clattered in a noisy file down the obscure marble flight that led to the rotunda below, where lies buried all that was greatest in Spain. The stairs were slippery, their treads worn to a polished smoothness by the constant passing of curious, but reverent, feet, and a considerable degree of caution was necessary to avoid accident in descending.

The first impression of the royal tombs turned out to be far less gloomy and depressing than the immensity of the grim monastery above. The general tone of the burial vault was anything but sombre, relieved as it was by highly polished marbles and much gilding ; and yet it was a place of overwhelming solemnity, despite its wide departure from the original plans of the austere Philip. There was too much royal dust assembled here to permit the apartment’s suffering from earthly tawdriness, and the decoration of these huge marble coffins did not jar harshly on one. High overhead in the top-most niche reposed the sarcophagus of Charles V, King of Spain and Emperor of Holy Rome. Directly beneath him, in their proper order, came the successive monarchs, each in his narrow cell forever laid, — Philip II’s immediately under Charles’s. Philip V, however, and Ferdinand VI were missing, — buried elsewhere. But apart from these the great marble room contained the bodies of all the later kings and their consorts, with niches yet to spare for those who are to come hereafter. Each sarcophagus was like every other one, — black marble, highly polished, and lettered in gold with the name of its occupant. On these polished surfaces the light of flaring tapers and candles danced in myriad reflections, giving an effect that certainly was not lugubrious, but was far removed from gayety.

At least one of the Philips, according to tradition, used to chasten his soul, and possibly even amuse himself in his morbid way, by coming to this chamber of the mighty dead and clambering to his destined niche, where he would lie at full length, listening to mass celebrated at the adjacent altar, doubtless meditating after the manner of St. Praxed’s bishop, how it would feel to lie here for centuries, seeing “God made and eaten all day long.” It is hardly likely that the present debonair young Alfonso cares to pleasure himself in this nerve-racking way, although his niche is already designated. It cannot be an edifying thing to view in too minute detail the ground where one shall shortly lie !

Opposite this imposing array of kings repose the remains of the queens, one of the sarcophagi said to be scratched with the name of its present occupant, by herself during her lifetime, —womanlike, with a pair of scissors !

After a brief sojourn in the midst of so much royalty one is inclined to rate somewhat more highly than before the courage of Philip IV, — the king so prone to spend his time lying in his niche, — for it was surely a pastime calculated to unstring any but the stoutest nerves. Whether Philip II, who started the building, would have indulged in the same curious experiment is not stated, but one could imagine his doing so readily enough. He was certainly given to a sufficiency of uncanny practices as an outcome of his religious mania. But with all his zeal he had not the hardihood to relinquish his kingdom entirely and take up the monkish life, as his father Charles had done ; and instead devised this expedient of making his palace practically a monastery, living there in true monkish simplicity, but retaining the sceptre in a firm grasp. He could forego the pomps and vanities of this world, but not its power; and his life in the bare suite of rooms adjoining the great church above was probably as little comfort-able as it would have been at Yuste. The high altar of the church became the lodestone from which the monarch was never willing to depart, and these tombs of the kings are so disposed directly beneath it that they must always be under the feet of the priest at the elevation of the Host. While yet he lived a parlous and painful existence in the rooms of the Escorial, Philip constantly heard mass and other offices from his own chamber, a door of which opened directly into the sanctuary ; and as his days drew to an end he became much disturbed in mind lest he had not burned and tortured heretics enough to save his own soul alive. His last expiring breath, however, is said to have been expended in ordering more gilt nails for his coffin, — for he was not minded to spend eternity in a mean condition, whatever the penances of his last hours.

We found it extremely hard to tear ourselves away from this overwhelming array of regal tombs with their mysterious and awful fascination. It was not the mere rows of huge black sarcophagi, but the irresistible and morbid thought of what they contained. How fared these proud princes in their sealed marbles? Not badly, if one may credit the testimony of a not very distant past ; for if the revelations made in the single case of the great Charles are any criterion of the status of the rest, these bodies should all be in a state of remarkable preservation. Charles’s coffin has been opened twice since his death, — the last time in 1871, — and on each occasion the body was found “quite uncorrupted even to the eyeballs [Charles was buried open-eyed], although the skin had turned black.” This inspection of the royal dead, however, was apparently confined to Charles. The others to no such aureate earth were turned !

In a long and narrow corridor from which open numerous side chambers of a far from gloomy aspect repose the princes and princesses of the realm, — royal children who never reached the throne or their maturity. Their tombs are much more cheerful, being carved of white marble of the purest and most splendid kind. There is a very long line of these, some occupied and some still untenanted, — reserved for the future’s untimely dead. Most of these sarcophagi are simple and tasteful, but a few are as overloaded with ornament as the pantheon of the kings, and lack its impressive gloom to relieve the garishness. I recall one of these ornate tombs especially, in the corner room, I think, a vast, octagonal structure of white, covered with elaborate carving until it resembles nothing so much as an immense confectioner’s cake, utterly unworthy of comparison with the chaste and simple tomb near by where lies all that is mortal of young Baltasar Carlos, — that radiant prince whom Velasquez had made us love.

Passing out of the Pantheon at last, much chilled and on the whole depressed by the presence of so much imperial dust, we had more leisure to examine the vast church which holds its station directly over-head, at the very heart of the Escorial. It proved to be really fine, as Spanish churches go, and happily free from the common intrusion of the choir and altar screens. For the high altar is built in a deep recess at the eastern end of the structure, and set high on a dais reached by an imposing flight of many steps, almost as wide as the church itself. The effect is very rich and satisfactory. On either side of this recess are placed bronze groups of the families of Charles V and Philip II, the figures of life size and all kneeling in prayer. In the wall ad-joining are the oratories of the kings, with sliding panels which practically make them parts of the church at need ; and it was from the one at the right of the altar that Philip was accustomed to watch the priests at mass. It was here also that he sat when they brought him the glorious news of the victory at Lepanto, which he heard without moving a muscle ; and it was here that he heard with equal stoicism the news that the Armada had been destroyed. Such, at any rate, is the tale ; but the victory of Lepanto (1571) must have found the Escorial in a sad state of incompleteness.

The roof of the vast nave is borne aloft on enormous clustered pillars. The floor is paved with marble, and the lighting is such as to make the church dim without being gloomy. It was here that we came for the first time on the occasional custom of introducing the choir as a coro alto, — that is to say, a high choir, raised above the nave by means of arches forming a spacious loft. The effect of this is to leave the nave free in its whole extent, as to length, but to roof over one end of it. This arrangement we subsequently found to be quite common in the more northern churches, and it was generally most gracefully worked out. It certainly tends to improve the interior effects, whatever its technical drawbacks in the matter of isolating the priests from the altar.

In form, the general plan of the whole monastery is that of a gridiron, the same being the inevitable symbol of St. Lawrence, to whose honor and glory this institution is sacred. It is claimed to have been a votive offering, made by Philip for the reparation of an injury done this saint in the battle of San Quentin, when the Spanish artillery were forced to destroy a small church sacred to him.’ Philip personally was not to blame, of course. He was not at the battle at all, being a monarch who much preferred to pray for the success of his armies at some secure and distant point, and could be depended upon with fair certainty not to be in the way on the eve of a battle. Nevertheless he was sufficiently imbued with a sense of responsibility to St. Lawrence to vow him a new and more splendid building to replace that demolished by the royal cannon, — and hence the Escorial, with its curious succession of cavernous courts barred across by numerous lofty granite buildings. One may readily observe the gridiron effect by glancing at the plan of it in the Baedeker. Philip, who had no such handy volume, was accustomed to climb — or more likely be carried — into the lofty mountains that rise just behind the building to a stone throne erected there, whence he could at ease look down upon the work of his hands and see how marvelously like it was to the culinary implement on which San Lorenzo suffered a ghastly martyrdom.

Today a portion of the monastery buildings is devoted to a national school of forestry, and we found a multitude of its youthful students congregated in the shade of the grim walls playing at ball and diabolo, unawed, to all seeming, by the gloom of the structure. One may become accustomed to almost anything, and therefore I suppose one may even become habituated to daily association with the Escorial. But to any one casually passing a few hours there it will probably seem about the most uninspiring location which could be found for a school of forestry. Certainly it lacks any spark of architectural vividness, and instead is thoroughly stupid and dull. Its 2673 windows are all precisely alike and boast no adornment ; indeed, ranged as they are in interminable rows along the gray and gloomy sides of the building the effect is that of unmitigated dreariness, suggestive of an unenlightened colonial jail. As a palace it will hardly serve any longer. Philip V, being gay and French by nature and training, went over to La Granja in the Segovia region and made him a much livelier palace than this, which has enjoyed monarchical favor ever since his time as the better summer home. It must be depressing to have a residence in such close juxtaposition to a grave, — and especially to a pudridero, wherein bodies of deceased royalty are supposed to rest for five years before ultimate burial, presumably to make sure they are really dead !

There is just one note of worldly pomp about the Escorial, and even that would escape the notice of one who had not been especially instructed where to look for it. In one of the towers just under the apex is set a small plate of glistening gold. It can easily be seen from the roadway in front of the whole monastery, as you pass toward the gateway that opens toward the western mountains. Its evident inaccessibility is probably all that has prevented its being stolen overnight. The story is that Philip set it there in a spirit of defiance as a haughty notice to the world that he had not by any means exhausted his exchequers in erecting this prodigious bit of imperial folly; and thus, in the midst of so colossal an evidence of religious renunciation, gleamed forth the vainglorious side of Philip’s character, — as incongruous in the building as it was in the nature of the fanatic king. Apart from this bright bit of gold there is no external adornment whatever. The domes and towers diversify the skyline, but save for that it is all sheer monotony. One must remember that it was first, last, and all the time a penitential offering, designed by a king whose name was the synonym for melancholy and whose desire was to play the hermit.

So melancholy was it that we were heartily glad to escape from it for a time and seek cheer in the fonda, which we were at some pains to discover. It lay in a side street, hard by but hidden from view by an ugly neighbor, — a school of engineers. Once within its hospitable portals, however, and surrounded by bottles of Valdepeñas in a joyous row, we forgot for the time the chill of those depressing corridors, “a hundred miles in length,” and the awful solemnity of that mausoleum. But this respite was but short-lived. There remained the palace of the kings, the library, the gardens, and that fascinating park to see.

The palace proper, which, like the tombs in the pantheon, has been fitted up by later kings in any-thing but the simplicity which Philip contemplated, proved to be nothing more than a succession of those dreary rooms that must be familiar to any traveler who has ever seen any royal abode in Europe. It was a dismal array of narrow and lofty chambers with paneled walls, absurdly diminutive fireplaces, utterly impracticable and spindle-legged chairs, faded fauteuils, embrasured windows, worn tapestries, and general atmosphere of decayed gentility. The tapestries, however, relieved it of all fear of failure, since they were intensely interesting. For the most part they were made from those de-signs by Goya, the quaint cartoons we had seen displayed at the Prado.

The apartments of Philip II himself, being suffered by some happy chance to remain as he planned and used them, and not subjected to this unseemly attempt of later kings to be gay and lightsome in the midst of austerity, proved much more interesting. Here certainly was a semblance of that exaggerated asceticism which the great Charles had affected at his abdication ; for Philip desired nothing more than a series of “cells” to live in, devoid of every pretense at adornment. What gives these bare rooms their interest is the fact that they remain as Philip knew them and contain several very intimate relics of his last few years, — his great desk, for example, some chairs, and the palanquin in which the monarch, sick unto death, was borne over the hills to the Escorial for the last time. The only painted adornment of these rooms appears to be a rude fresco of the “seven deadly sins” and a Ma-donna or two.

Philip died in a tiny room adjoining the great church, clasping in his hands the ancient crucifix that had comforted the dying moments of Charles V, — and bothered only by the haunting fear that he might not have burned enough heretics to war-rant that smiling reception among the blest that Titian had depicted on his flattering canvas. The guide — for this portion of the Escorial is only to be seen with guides — suddenly pushed open a panel in the wall of the apartment, and we looked out unexpectedly into the great church, its high altar close at our elbows, — and, kneeling in untiring adoration before it, Philip himself in bronze ! It was a dramatic climax to our wanderings through these old and mouldy apartments and doubtless it must suit the shade of Philip right well, if, as I suspect, he haunts the Escorial.

It was far pleasanter to wander down through the sunlit courts and cloisters in search of the sala capitular, where are to be seen a number of paintings of rare merit. Velasquez is there, as usual, but represented this time by purely religious pictures ; and after him in a bewildering array come splendid examples of the art of Tintoretto, Veronese, Luca Giordano, Ribera, Rogier van der Weyden, Navarrete, and the weird and gloomy Greco, of whose works the Spaniards never seem to tire, for his emaciated, long-necked figures are to be found in force in every gallery of Spain.

Pleasanter still, perhaps, because so different from anything we had yet seen, was the great library of printed books, a huge and lofty corridor high up in one of the numerous cross-bars of the mighty gridiron, adjoining the immense courtyard of the kings. Of the books themselves one can see but few, for they are kept closely shut in a regiment of cabinets, and one must take them, as one takes so much else in Spain, on faith. The curious custom of placing the volumes with their backs against the wall, inscribing their titles on the edges of their leaves, has often been commented upon. For the sight of the visiting multitude there are numerous open books displayed in glass cases down the centre of the room, — ancient volumes, admirably preserved, — the general effect strongly recalling the similar apartments of the Vatican palace.

Pleasantest of all, however, was it to escape entirely from the deep hollow-squares of the monastery and wander out into the bright warmth of the afternoon along the ramp and terrace below the great gray bulk of the palace walls, unmindful of their grimness and forgetful of those hideous battalions of windows, but smelling the fragrance of the box and myrtle, and gazing off across the deep desert toward the smoky mazes on the far horizon which, we knew, indicated Madrid. It was a curious terrace that ran along beneath the cliff-like exterior of the Escorial, — a terrace with a cavernous cellar beneath it, into which deep grottoes led downward at intervals along the way. But above, it was all bright, and green, and warm, — warm enough to drive us around the huge corner of the palace beneath Philip’s monastic windows to escape the sun, and enjoy there the prim formality of the fragrant hedges and the prospect over the rolling desert, — at this distance almost a thing of beauty.

For a few moments we forgot the cold dampness of the monastery and its numerous wintry courts, and the Escorial seemed to afford some few attractions as an abode. Nevertheless, the cheerlessness of the building has been sufficient to drive the later monarchs to shun the spot, reserving their permanent occupancy for the time when they should be far beyond mortal cares. The Bourbon Philip V, as has been said, revolted from this palace and retired to the snowy heights above Segovia, where he built him a palace in faint imitation of Versailles, — but called to this day La Granja (the farm), and to this day occupied by Spanish royalty during the hotter months. Charles IV, who, one must bear in mind, comes long after Charles V instead of just before, had a small residence built for himself while yet a prince, in the dense groves that cover the slopes below the Escorial on the way to the station. It is still known as the Casita del Principe (the prince’s cot) , as it was when Charles was a lad, in 1772.

Toward this retired and attractive spot we turned our steps late in the afternoon, only to meet stern repulse from the grenadier on guard at the gate. He pointed out that our tickets, which we had pro-cured early in the day from an office somewhere within, and which we had subsequently forgotten to consult, specified the time for closing the gardens of the casita as four o’clock, — and it was now two minutes past ! In vain we pleaded for an extension of time, for a mere quarter-hour that we might at least enjoy the coolness of the woods. In vain we flattered, cajoled, offered bribes. To each entreaty his answer was an increasingly decisive negative, — “Ahora, señor, no se puede entrar ! ”

As always when one is arbitrarily denied one’s will, this grove and its distant casita, whose roof could just be made out amid the tops of distant trees, instantly became for us the most desirable and alluring spot in the whole Escorial. It had promised to be such a pleasant walk under those shady trees to the station ! But we were forced to abandon it, and instead betook ourselves to the solace of a cool bottle of Insalus — Spain’s chief and altogether admirable mineral water. After all, this was not so bad. We gave up the casita and the park, but we had spread out before us a splendid pageant of rugged and snowy mountains, whose mighty shadow stole silently and slowly across the face of the desert below.

I cannot say that we came away disappointed in the Escorial. Repeated warnings had led us to expect no beauty there, and we certainly found almost none. But as a grand expression in immutable stone of the austere and fanatical spirit of Old Spain, it left nothing to be desired. The mighty ghost of Philip the Second walks through its courts, chilly and forbidding as in life. His cruelty, meanness, bigotry, fanaticism, and pride stand revealed for all time in the dreary highland castle which is his chief visible monument. If the Escorial is ugly, it at least has the merit of extreme, thoroughgoing ugliness, and of a consistency with its aims and authorship that amounts to a redeeming grace. It is simply and straightforwardly what it was meant to be, — the outward expression of a stern monarch’s asceticism, the fitting abode of death and mighty ghosts.