San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a historical complex structure located in Madrid, Spain. The architecture portrays the Renaissance in Spain. Built between 1563-1584, El Escorial stands as the largest renaissance building. King Philip II envisioned a structure that would serve as a burial ground for his father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, as well as a Hieronymite monastery and a palace. 

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The complex accommodates not just a palace and monastery but also diverse components like the Basilica, Pantheon, Library (added in 1592), Museum, University, School, and Hospital.

Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain Balance, Order and Clarity - Sheet1
El Escorial_©wikimedia

The royal site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial houses the King of Spain. The complexity of the project took decades to complete and created thousands of employment opportunities at the peak of its construction.

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The facade describes an expression of solemn unornamented appearance along with uniform planning. This was notable at the time because it defied established architectural forms on the Iberian Peninsula (the peninsula that includes Spain and Portugal), such as the extremely decorated Plateresque style, which was influenced by intricate silverwork designs.

Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain Balance, Order and Clarity - Sheet2
Platereresque style University of Salamanca, facade_wikimedia.org

The four-storey building features enormous, rectangular towers at each corner. Eleven courtyards, three smaller “service” courts, and various gardens make up the complex. Classical column orders adorn the exterior, with massive, simple Doric columns on the facade. 

Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain Balance, Order and Clarity - Sheet3
El Escorial, Spain_el-escorial.com

The west facade marks the entrance to the Courtyard of the Kings (Patio de Los Reyes), featuring  Lorenzo above the royal coat of arms. The exterior of the basilica includes six Old Testament kings towering above the first level, despite the lack of decorative or figural ornamentation. 

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Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain Balance, Order and Clarity - Sheet4
west facade with St. Lawrence (San Lorenzo) and the royal coat of arms_wikimedia.org
Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain Balance, Order and Clarity - Sheet5
Basilica facade with six Old Testament kings_wikimedia.org

 Grid-iron Planning 

The complex was originally laid out on a grid (also known as a gridiron) plan by Juan Bautista de Toledo, a Michelangelo student who assisted in the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A grid plan symbolizes balance and order, as well as clarity and coherence. Some speculate that the grid pattern at El Escorial is related to the grill where St. Lawrence (San Lorenzo) was martyred.

Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain Balance, Order and Clarity - Sheet6
Ground plan of El Escorial, 1726_rijksmuseum.nl

The grid plan was not used in most Spanish cities on the Iberian Peninsula, because they were older cities with pre-existing streets. However, in the sixteenth century, Philip II issued edicts that prescribed grid layouts for the construction of towns and cities throughout the Spanish viceroyalties. This points to a broader Renaissance trend in Spain and surrounding territories of a return to towns that were properly laid out and consistent—a throwback to ancient Roman architectural traditions.

After Toledo died in 1567, the project was completed by a second architect, Juan de Herrera. It is said that Herrera used to meet the king periodically to consult on El Escorial, and the king later chose him as his royal architect in the late 1570s.

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Herrera is recognized for his “severe” classicism, which was influenced by the work of Italian architects such as Sebastiano Serlio, Giacomo da Vignola, and Giulio Romano, whose work he saw on his travels to Italy. Romano’s Palazzo Te in Mantua, which also contained classicizing architectural aspects, may have influenced his design for El Escorial. In commemoration of Herrera, El Escorial’s harsh style is frequently referred to as “Herreresque.”

Monastry El Escorial_Giacomo Lauro, 1638

Art and Artists at El Escorial

Unlike the limited decorative facades, the interiors are adorned with representations and paintings.   Visitors will find additional monarchs and saints’ portrayals on the interiors of the basilica. Many of the surfaces, such as the library’s walls, are covered in frescoes. El Escorial’s interior is harmonious, despite its extremely ornamental elements, with the decoration deliberately arranged to produce a harmonious and visually integrated area.

Artists from all over Europe were commissioned to decorate the interior. Two Italian painters, Federico Zuccaro and Pellegrino Tibaldi, were paid to complete frescoes and other paintings.

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Tibaldi’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence on the basilica’s main altarpiece exemplifies Michelangelo’s influence, with its grandiose figures showcasing well-defined musculature. Works by Claudio Coello, Luca Giordano, and El Greco are also included. In 1582, the latter created The Martyrdom of St. Maurice for El Escorial, but it was rejected by Philip II because the foreground figures were the composition’s focal point. 

Philip II brought in a variety of artworks, including some by Titian and others by Flemish painters such as Hieronymous Bosch, at El Escorial. The king eventually acquired about twenty-six Bosch paintings, including the well-known Garden of Earthly Delights. Many of these works are on display at El Escorial. The Prado Museum eventually acquired Works from the royal collection at El Escorial.

Nowhere else in Renaissance art do architecture, painting, and sculpture emerge in such a unified splendour, with each detail appearing as a necessary part of the whole.

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Heritage Value and an Image of Imperial Spain

Later rulers altered El Escorial, but it retains its unity to this day. In the 17th century, the Royal Pantheon, a chapel containing the bodies of Spanish kings, was finalized under the rule of Philip IV. El Escorial lost some of its collection to fire and mishappenings, but it still is one of the largest descriptions of the Renaissance movement.

Philip encouraged those who came to see him at court to go to El Escorial. One particularly intriguing incident dates from 1584, when Japanese nobles and their Portuguese Jesuit guide paid a visit to Philip II in Madrid, after which the Spanish king brought them to El Escorial to marvel at his creation and, hopefully, to be impressed by its grandeur.

The severe classicizing aesthetic, blended with a grid plan, sought to establish Philip II as a formidable imperial ruler with refined taste during the Renaissance, comparable to the great Roman emperors of the past. The Escorial is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Spain’s most visited tourist attractions. 

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References

‌1)  El Escorial. View from the north-west. [online] Wikimedia Commons. Available at: 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:El_Escorial_View_from_the_north-west.jpg

‌2) Wikimedia.org. (2021). [online] Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d4/Salamanca_-_Universidad%2C_Escuelas_Mayores%2C_fachada_01.jpg

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3) Anon, (n.d.). El Escorial – Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. [online] Available at: https://el-escorial.com/.

4) Wikimedia.org. (2012). [online] Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/36/Facade_monastery_San_Lorenzo_de_El_Escorial_Spain.jpg 

‌5) commons.wikimedia.org. (n.d.). File:Monegro-ReyesJuda.jpg – Wikimedia Commons. [online] Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monegro-ReyesJuda.jpg 

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6) Rijksmuseum. (n.d.). Search. [online] Available at: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/search/objects?q=escorial&p=2&ps=12&st=OBJECTS&ii=1#/RP-P-OB-83.036-173

7) Rijksmuseum. (n.d.). Search. [online] Available at: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/search/objects?q=escorial&p=2&ps=12&st=OBJECTS&ii=1#/RP-P-2016-671-34 

Author

Vanshika was born and raised in Delhi. She is an aesthete, loves to explore the field of art, design, architecture, and everything in between. When it comes to writing, she has always been that kid confiding into diaries and penning down her thoughts. She strongly believes in learning and re-learning

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