The Escorial – Historical Residence of the King of Spain

A cold and gloomy day, which settled into a downpour of rain from black and flying clouds, found us on the way to the Escorial. It was the only rainy day that we had during our Spanish journey, and it harmonized with the excursion and with the scenery. The ride from Madrid grew more and more sombre and desolate as we advanced, till at last we halted at the village of Escorial on the wild, rocky, pineclad slope of the Guadarrama, and looked up at the stupendous edifice of gray granite, formed into a palace, a church, and a convent, which Spaniards reckon as the eighth wonder of the world. The rain came down in torrents as we drove up to the Hotel Miranda, opposite the entrance to the vast pile; but we were soon dry, and ready to enter the monastery.

I have no sympathy with that criticism, whether vesthetic or architectural, which despises and ridicules this great work of Philip II. Its vastness bewilders the ordinary mind; its solemn and awful character, unrelieved by any brightness or graceful features, oppresses the soul. One longs for color, for music, for a crowd, or even a sacred pageant, to mitigate the stern and severe impression which is felt at the first glance at the Escorial, and which deepens with every look into its immense interiors.

Philip II. built his own character into this structure. He had architects, indeed; but Philip was his own designer, a man of great artistic taste, and a liberal patron of artists, of indomitable will and dense superstition. His morbid devotion was akin to insanity, and the passion for seclusion which haunted him showed the same tendency. He was the proudest among kings, and the most bigoted among devotees; what wonder, then, that he should build a convent for a palace, and make its costliest room a sepulchre? The Escorial was built in fulfilment of a vow made by Philip to his patron saint, St. Laurence, after the victory of St. Quentin, in August, 1557, and in compliance with the request of Charles V. that Philip would build a mausoleum for him and his descendants. The systematic and austere monarch did nothing hastily or without due order and plan. One can read his reasons for founding the Escorial in a document, written and signed by the monarch, which runs thus, “In acknowledgment of the many and great blessings which it has pleased God to heap on us and continue to us daily, and inasmuch as he has been pleased to direct and guide our deeds and acts to his holy service, and in maintenance and defence of his holy faith and religion, and of justice and peace within our realms; considering likewise what the emperor and king, my lord and father, in a codicil which he lately made, committed to our care, and charged us with, respecting his tomb, the spot and place where his body, and that of the empress and queen, my lady and mother, should be placed, it being most just and meet that their bodies should be most duly honored with a befitting burial ground . . . and because we have, besides, determined that whenever it may please God to take us away to him, our body should rest in the same place and spot near theirs, . . . for all these reasons we found and erect the Monastery of San Lorenzo el Real, near the town of El Escorial, in the diocese of Toledo,” and so on.

The building was begun in 1565, and finished in 1584, at a cost of three and a quarter millions of dollars. It covers a surface of 500,000 feet, is 744 feet long, and 580 wide, divided into 16 courts or quadrangles. There are eight massive towers at the angles, about two hundred feet high, a church in the centre, 320 feet long, 230 feet wide, and 320 high, where the cupola crowns the whole structure. There are 88 fountains, 86 staircases, 15 cloisters, 12,000 doors, 2600 windows, more than half a mile of fresco painting, and miles of corridors and passages. These figures are extremely prosaic, but they give the idea of vastness and massive grandeur even better than the photograph which I brought from the place.

It has been said so often that the architect was obliged to build this structure in the form of a gridiron, because it was dedicated to St. Laurence, that most people believe it to be true. Arrogant assertion, or equally arrogant denial, passes current with a majority of mankind, who have neither time nor inclination to investigate. There is no evidence that the architects, either Juan Bautista de Toledo or his successor, Juan de Herrera, ever had any such instructions, or entertained any such idea. Any building in the form of a parallelogram with a portico might be called a gridiron, especially if it had St. Laurence to back it.

The main interest of the Escorial is historical and personal. Its immense Church, in the form of a Greek cross, contains numerous chapels, of which the finest is the High chapel, which is built directly over the tomb of the kings. Philip desired the altar of the chapel to be placed directly above this vaulted tomb, so that mass should be said daily over the bodies of the kings. This altar is made of precious stones, and one slab of jasper forms the top. The whole interior is impressive and elaborate, but its solemnity does not invite to worship. On either side of the high altar are little oratories, low rooms of marble, for the use of royal persons in their attendance-upon mass. The one on the left, as you look from the altar, was used by Philip IL, and this communicates with the little suite of rooms which he inhabited, and where he died after weeks of agony, in misery and filth. The dreadful details of his illness and death have been given by Siguenza, and commented upon by many historians and biographers.

The choir at the entrance of the Church has two rows of elegant stalls made out of ebony and cedar and other choice woods, well carved, and its library contains enormous choral books, some of which have leaves of parchment two yards wide, each leaf taking the whole skin of a calf. Some of the books are beautifully illuminated, and bear marks of frequent use. The gem of the choir is a marble crucifix, carved by Benvenuto Cellini, the great Florentine, for the Duke of Tuscany, who gave it to Philip. From the church we descended to the Panteon, the steps and walls of which, as well as the tombs, are of precious marbles. In an octagonal marble chamber are twenty-six sarcophagi, placed one above the other, around the walls, upon each side of the jasper altar. These contain the remains of kings and mothers of kings, the kings on the right and their consorts on the left of the altar. Charles V. occupies an upper sarcophagus, and Philip I. lies in a coffin of gilt bronze in the one below. It is said that Maria Louisa, his wife, scratched her name with a pair of scissors upon her future resting-place. In a separate chamber lie the royal infants and princes, and queens whose sons did not occupy the throne. It is a wonderful sepulchre, whose like is not to be seen elsewhere; but it seemed pagan and repulsive, in spite of the many pious and Christian inscriptions upon the marble tombs. Compared with the catacombs at Rome, whose rude and simply symbols tell of pure and deep piety, or with many a resting-place in Continental or English cathedrais, this Panteon seemed a charnel-house, gloomy and depressing, with nothing to lift the soul out of the dreariness and emptiness of death. We were glad to climb the polished steps, and follow our guide through the more cheerful and handsomely furnished rooms of the palace, looking at elegant tapestries and fine furniture, and thence into the library, to dissipate the impression. The library is an arched room nearly two hundred feet long and thirty-two feet wide, paved with marble, with carved cases for books, and tables of marble and porphyry for the use of readers. The ceilings are frescoed, and portraits adorn the walls. All the books have their edges turned outwards, which renders it impossible to tell their contents. On each table are some fine illuminated manuscripts, and there are a variety of rare and beautiful works in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic on exhibition.

As the rain had ceased, we were glad to leave the interior of the monastery and go out upon the platforms and terraces which overlook gardens and orchards and fish-ponds, pleasing features in the midst of melancholy wastes. The distant view was dreary; and, in the village below, the railway buildings were prominent, with their nineteenth century excitements, out of harmony with all the other sur roundings. We walked away to the village promenade, now quite deserted, and, sitting down, gazed over the severe landscape, and meditated upon the life of the man who for threescore years stifled all generous emotions, gave up to bigotry and superstition a powerful mind and great opportunities, wasted the resources of his country in worse than useless wars and persecutions, and left this vast and useless pile as a monument and a warning.