The Royal Pantheon – Spain Travel

The death-chamber of the kings is by all odds the most interesting and impressive sight at the Escorial. We mustered some thirty 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 somber, 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 topmost 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 11.’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 far removed from gaiety.

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. Opposite this imposing array of kings re-pose 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 practises 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 scepter 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 lode-stone 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 Escurial, 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 be-came 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], altho 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 Velesquez had made us love.

Passing out of the Pantheon at last, much chilled, and on the whole deprest by the presence of so much imperial dust, we had more leisure to examine the vast church which holds its station directly overhead, 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. The oratories of the kings, have 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.