The Escorial – Spain Travel

We must confess to a special fancy for Philip IL He was so true a king, so vain, so superstitious, so mean and cruel, it is probable so great a king never lived. Nothing could be more royal than the way he distributed his gratitude for the victory on St. Lawrence’s day. To Count Egmont, whose splendid courage and loyalty gained him the battle, he gave ignominy and death on the scaffold; and to exhibit a gratitude to a myth which he was too mean to feel to a man, he built to San Lorenzo that stupendous mass of granite which is today the visible demonstration of the might and the weakness of Philip and his age.

He called it the Monastery of San Lorenzo el Real, but the nomenclature of the great has no authority with the people. It was built on a site once covered with cinder-heaps from a long abandoned iron-mine, and so it was called in common speech the Escorial. The royal seat of San Ildefonso can gain from the general public no higher name than La Granja, the Farm. The great palace of Catharine de Medici, the home of three dynasties, is simply the Tuileries, the Tile-fields. You can not make people call the White House the Executive Mansion. A merchant named Pitti built a palace in Florence, and tho kings and grand dukes have inhabited it since, it is still the Pitti. There is nothing so democratic as language.

The conscience of Philip did not permit a long delay in the accomplishment of his vow. Charles V. had charged him in his will to build a mausoleum for the kings of the Austrian race. He bound the two obligations in one, and added a third destination to the enormous pile he contemplated. It should be a palace as well as a monastery and a royal charnel house. He chose the most appropriate spot in Spain for the erection of the most cheerless monument in existence. He had fixt his capital at Madrid because it was the dreariest town in Spain, and to envelop himself in a still pro-founder desolation, he built the Escorial out of sight of the city, on a bleak, bare hillside, swept by the glacial gales of the Guadarrama, parched by the vertical suns of summer, and curst at all seasons with the curse of barrenness. Before it towers the great chain of mountains separating Old and New Castile. Behind it the chilled winds sweep down to the Madrid plateau, over rocky hillocks and involved ravines—a scene in which probably no man ever took pleasure except the royal recluse who chose it for his home.

John Baptist of Toledo laid the corner-stone on an April day of 1563, and in the autumn of 1584 John of Herrera looked upon the finished work, so vast and so gloomy that it lay like an incubus upon the breast of earth. It is a parallelogram measuring from north to south seven hundred and forty-four feet, and five hundred and eighty feet from east to west. It is built, by order of the fantastic bigot, in the form of St. Lawrence’s grid-iron, the courts representing the interstices of the bars, and the towers at the corners sticking helpless in the air like the legs of the supine implement. It is composed of a clean gray granite, chiefly in the Doric order, with a severity of facade that degenerates into poverty, and defrauds the building of the effect its great bulk merits. The sheer monotonous walls are pierced with eleven thousand windows, which, tho really large enough for the rooms, seem on that stupendous surface to shrink into musketry loopholes. In the center of the parallelogram stands the great church, surmounted by its soaring dome. All around the principal building is stretched a circumscribing line of convents, in the same style of doleful yellowish-gray, so endless in extent that the inmates might easily despair of any world beyond them.

There are few scenes in the world so depressing as that which greets you as you enter into the wide court before the church, called El Temple. You are shut finally in by these iron-gray walls. The outside day has given you up. Your feet slip on the damp flags. An unhealthy fungus tinges the humid corners with a pallid green. You look in vain for any trace of human sympathy in those blank walls and that severe facade. There is a dismal attempt in that direction in the gilded garments and the painted faces of the colossal prophets and kings that are perched above the lofty doors. But they do not comfort you; they are tinselled stones, not statues.

A flight of veined marble steps leads to the beautiful retable of the high altar. The screen, over ninety feet high, cost the Milanese Trezzo seven years of labor. The pictures illustrative of the life of our Lord are by Tibaldi and Zuccaro. The gilt bronze tabernacle of Trezzo and Herrera, which has been likened with the doors of the Baptistery of Florence as worthy to figure in the architecture of heaven, no longer exists. It furnished a half hour’s amusement to the soldiers of France. On either side of the high altar are the oratories of the royal family, and above them are the kneeling effigies of Charles, with his wife, daughter, and sisters, and Philip with his successive harem of wives. One of the few luxuries this fierce bigot allowed himself was that of a new widowhood every few years. There are forty other altars with pictures good and bad. The best are by the wonderful deaf-mute, Navarrete, of Logrono, and by Sanchez Coello, the favorite of Philip.

A sense of duty will take you into the crypt where the dead kings are sleeping in brass. This mausoleum, ordered by the great Charles, was slow in finishing. All of his line had a hand in it down to Philip IV., who completed it and gathered in the poor relics of royal mortality from many graves. The key of the vault is the stone where the priest stands when he elevates the Host in the temple above. The vault is a graceful octagon about forty feet high, with nearly the same diameter; the flickering light of your torches shows twenty-six sarcophagi, some occupied and some empty, filling the niches of the polished marble. On the right sleep the sovereigns, on the left their consorts. There is a coffin for Dona Isabel de Bourbon among the kings, and one for her amiable and lady-like husband among the queens. They were not lovely in their lives, and in their deaths they shall be divided.

Twice, it is said, the coffin of the emperor has been opened by curious hands—by Philip IV., who found the corpse of his great ancestor intact, and observed to the courtier at his elbow, “An honest body, Don Luis !” and again by the Ministers of State and Fomento in the spring of 1870, who started back aghast when the coffin-lid was lifted and disclosed the grim face of the Burgess of Ghent, just as Titian painted hint—the keen, bold face of a world-stealer.

I do not know if Philip’s funeral urn was ever opened. He stayed above ground too long as it was, and it is probable that people have never cared to look upon his face again. All that was human had died out of him years before his actual demise, and death seemed not to consider it worth while to carry off a vampire. (lo into the little apartment where his last days were passed; a wooden table and book-shelf, one arm-chair and two stools—the one upholstered with cloth for winter, the other with tin for summer—on which he rested his gouty leg, and a low chair for a secretary—this was all the furniture he used. The rooms are not larger than cupboards, low and dark. The little oratory where he died looks out upon the high altar of the Temple. In a living death, as if by an awful anticipation of the common lot it was ordained that in the flesh he should know corruption, he lay waiting his summons hourly for fifty-three days.

So powerful is the influence of a great personality that in the Escorial you can think of no one but Philip II. He lived here only fourteen years, but every corridor and cloister seems to preserve the souvenir of his somber and imperious genius. For two and a half centuries his feeble successors have trod these granite halls; but they flit through your mind pale and unsubstantial as dreams. The only tradition they preserved of their great descent was their magniflcence and their bigotry.

The only cheerful room in this granite wilderness is the library, still in good and careful keeping. A long, beautiful room, two hundred feet of bookcases, and tasteful frescoes by Tibaldi and Carducho, representing the march of the liberal sciences. Most of the older folios are bound in vellum, with their gilded edges, on which the title is stamped, turned to the front. A precious collection of old books and older manuscripts, use-less to the world as the hoard of a miser. Along the wall are hung the portraits of the Escurial kings and builders. The hall is furnished with marble and porphyry tables, and elaborate glass cases display some of the curiosities of the library.

Far up the mountain-side, in the shade of a cluster of chestnuts, is a rude block of stone, called the “King’s Chair,” where Philip used to sit in silent revery, watching as from an eyry the progress of the enormous work below. If you go there, you will see the same scene upon which his basilisk glance reposed—in a changed world, the same unchanging scene—the stricken waste, the shaggy horror of the mountains, the fixt plain wrinkled like a frozen sea, and in the center of the perfect picture the vast chill bulk of that granite pile, rising cold, colorless, and stupendous, as if carved from an iceberg by the hand of Northern gnomes. It is the palace of vanished royalty, the temple of a religion which is dead. There are kings and priests still, and will be for many coming years. But never again can a power exist which shall rear to the glory of the scepter and the cowl a monument like this. It is a page of history deserving to be well pondered, for it never will be repeated. The world which Philip ruled from the foot of the Guadarrama has passed away. A new heaven and a new earth came in with the thunders of 1776 and 1789. There will be no mare Pyramids, no more Versailles, no more Escorials.

There is a store of precious teachings in this mass of stone. It is one of the results of that mysterious law to which the genius of history has subjected the caprices of kings, to the end that we might not be left without a witness of the past for our warning and example—the law which induces a judged and sentenced dynasty to build for posterity some monument of its power, which hastens and commemorates its ruin. By virtue of this law we read on the plains of Egypt the pride and the fall of the Pharaohs. Before the facade of Versailles we see at a glance the grandeur of the Capetian kings and the necessity of the Revolution. And the most vivid picture of that fierce and gloomy religion of the sixteenth century, compounded of a base alloy of worship for an absolute king and a vengeful God, is to be found in this colossal hermitage in the flinty heart of the mountains of Castile.