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El Escorial Monastery – A Royal Ode to God

El Escorial Monastery Madrid

Nestled in the Sierra Guadarrama a little over 50km from Madrid sits the splendid and astonishing El Escorial monastery complex. Burial ground for Spanish monarchs, symbol of austere piety and retreat for the Madrid nobility, El Escorial has been an important location in Spanish history for 500 years. The town of El Escorial comprises both the more modern town at the bottom of the hill and smaller village named San Lorenzo del Escorial further uphill where the monastery is located.

A History of El Escorial

Although the relatively obscure site of El Escorial does not seem at first glance to be the type of place to build an all encompassing religious edifice, the King who set the project in motion, Philip II was hardly a man who did the norm. He reigned from 1556-1598 and, on seeing wave after wave of Protestantism sweep Europe he felt the need to create a symbol of religion in Spain. A symbol designed to impress and intimidate, El Escorial was to highlight both the power and the austerity of his vision of the Church. He commissioned the architect Juan Bautista de Toledo to start work on El Escorial. Bautista de Toledo had experienced working in Rome and Southern Italy and so was a logical choice for Philip II when it came to building El Escorial.

Although El Escorial was finished in little over 21 years, Bautista de Toledo did not live to see its completion. On his death less than a decade into the Escorial project, Juan de Herrera took over the building of El Escorial and saw it through to its completion in 1584. Philip II envisaged El Escorial as a monumental religious edifice designed both as a necropolis and a statement. It is comprised of a stunningly vast courtyard, a basilica, a school, monastery and the Pantheon of the Kings – where all but a few of the Spanish kings have been buried in the last five hundred years. El Escorial is a vital cog in the history of Spain.

Today, El Escorial remains a very popular day trip from Madrid, and is easily reached from the capital. The town in which the monastery sits (San Lorenzo del Escorial) has a delightfully quaint centre with a fine selection of bars, restaurants and hotels. Modern day El Escorial is favoured by well-heeled Madrid residents as a close and cool getaway during the blisteringly hot summers in the capital. Named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1984, El Escorial is a must see sight during any extended trip to the Spanish capital.


 

The different attractions of the Escorial complex

The Escorial complex is split into a number of different attractions. The Basilica of El Escorial is ornate and cross shaped, as was common at the time, boasting a beautiful domed roof – betraying Bautista de Toledo’s experience in Rome. Overlooking El Escorial basilica is Philip II’s palace, which is surprisingly simple and rudimentary for a monarch. The location is important, as the view from the palace into the basilica at El Escorial allowed Philip II to observe mass whilst he was infirm in his later years and residing at the Escorial

The Hall of Battles at El Escorial depicts not only victories the Spanish had during the reign of Philip II but also other historic military victories – both ornate and fascinating, the frescos stretch unending along the length of the hall wall. The architectural museum within the Escorial complex provides a wonderful insight into the tools and methods used during the building of the imposing structure. The Pantheon of Kings at El Escorial is remarkable for its symbolic importance as the final resting place for all but a few of the Spanish monarchs to have reigned in the last 500 years.

El Escorial is a fascinating day trip from Madrid, and is well worth your time. El Escorial has been a vital location in the history of Spain, and deserves some of your time on a trip to the Spanish capital.

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