This huge Spanish royal palace and monastery (convento) is fifty kilometres northwest of Madrid. The building is so large that for over a century it has housed a number of separate Augustinian communities of one of the Spanish Augustinian Provinces.
On 3 August 1885 the Order of Saint Augustine accepted an offer to have Augustinian communities live in the building. To this day, they maintain responsibility for the chapels and sacristies, for the official choir and for the schooling of the members of the choir, etc. As well, they administer a high school and a university on the premises.
The full title of the palace is El Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial (the Royal Monastery of St Laurence at Escorial). Escorial was the name of a small town in the vicinity. The site for El Escorial was selected in 1562. Construction began in 1563, and it took twenty-two years to build.
The general plan is a parallelogram with a perimeter of 3,000 feet; its area is about 500,000 square feet. There are four facades, the finest external aspect being on the southern side. The western or principal front is 744 feet long and 72 feet high, while the towers at each end rise about 200 feet. The enormous complex measures 200 m by 180 m (744 feet wide by 520 feet deep). The ground plan of the building is estimated to occupy an area of 30,000 square metres. It contains 9 towers, 300 rooms, 86 sets of stairs, 1,200 windows, 2,673 doors, 88 fountains, 73 statues and 9 organs.
The building is austere in appearance, grey in colour and with minimal visible features. King Philip II had strong religious sentiments, and wanted El Escorial to be built as a monastery (convento) as well as a royal palace. It was thus sparsely decorated, and showed only a little of the wealthy appearance seen in other palaces.
The enormous stretch of the severely plain wall is broken by only three entrances. The corners have large square towers. Imitations of various parts of it have been incorporated in the design of churches, monasteries and palaces in other countries. The most famous of these is the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, which was begun in 1669. Even so, the ostentation of Louis XIV of France created at Versailles a style of decoration far different from the austerity of Philip II.
Called "the eighth marvel of the world", the building gives an overall impression of grand design and austerity that has never been equalled. As part of the national patrimony of Spain the building is open to public tours on most days of the year. The Augustinian community areas are closed to the public.
History of the building
The Escorial is situated 1,100 metres above sea level, on the slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama (mountain range), and thus within the borders of the geographical Province of Madrid and the Kingdom of New Castile. This complex was built during the Spanish "Golden Age" when Spain was a major power in the world. As well as control over much of the "New World," the Spanish king Philip II, was also King of Naples, Sicily, and Milan in 1554, and also King of the Netherlands a year later. Philip II raised the idea of such a building in 1558. The building commemorates his first military victory, when he defeated the army of France at Saint-Quentin in the year 1557 on 10th August - the feast day of San Lorenzo (Saint Laurence). Its location was arranged in 1562. Construction began in 1563.
The complex is the design of two architects: Juan Bautista de Toledo who drew the plans for the monastery, and, after his death, Juan de Herrera, who is credited with faithfully completing the project as planned. In addition, the severely rectangular complex, with numerous internal courtyards (cortillas), is said to have been modelled on the grill on which San Lorenzo was martyred (roasted to death). If so, the grill has been modified, and other notable palaces in Europe have a similar layout.
The enormous stretch of the severely plain wall is broken by only three entrances. The corners have large square towers. The building gives an overall impression of grand design and austerity that has never been equalled. Not just content with building the "eighth marvel of the world", Philip also took over large tracts of land in its surroundings to build the Royal Woods of San Lorenzo, in the clearings of which smaller magnificent buildings were constructed.
The period in which El Escorial was built was the years of the Catholic Counter-Reformation inspired by the Council of Trent. The remarkable severity and plain appearance of the building were indicative of both the religious spirit of Spain and of the Catholic faith of Philip II. Philip possessed a strict disposition and an ascetic sense. This is reflected by the Escorial in its façades that are not adorned, the rigid rectangular layout of spaces, and square towers at each of the four corners of the building. One reason for the construction was that Philip II was obliged by the will of Charles V to erect a royal mausoleum. The Escorial is built of a stone with a light colour that has the appearance of granite. For the most part, the stone is highly polished. It is a mammoth building, with intended reminders of the Temple of Solomon, as described in the Bible. Indeed, the actor Errol Flynn died there on location while filming the biblical epic, Solomon and Sheba.
The construction of the Escorial cost 5.5 million ducats. By way of comparison, the equipping and sending of the Spanish Armada to invade England in the year 1588 cost Phillip II about ten million ducats. Neither of these ventures would have been financially possible without the stream of silver and goal coming to Spain from the New World (Latin America) as a tribute exacted by the King of Spain. The Escorial has twice been devastated by fire, and in 1807 it was looted by soldiers from France.
The chapels of the Escorial had been in charge of the Jeronimite Order until the religious suppression of 1835. As early as 1855 the Escorial had been offered to the Augustinians of the Philippines missionary province for their use as a seminary instead of their college at Valladolid, but they declined the offer at that point in time. On 3rd August 1885 they accepted a new offer to have Augustinian communities live in the building.
To this day, the Escorial Province of the Augustinian Order has responsibility for the chapels and sacristies, for the official choir and for the schooling of the members of the choir, etc. They also administer a high school within the vast building. They also use the building as a novitiate for candidates to the Order, and as a residence for Augustinian professors at the adjacent national university.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was a time of great difficulty for the Church, and for priests and religious orders in particular. During that war, sixty five members of the Order of Saint Augustine in the El Escorial were executed. This included the Augustinian Prior Provincial (regional superior) Avelino Rodríguez O.S.A.. The Assistant General (assistant world leader) Mariano Revilla O.S.A. was also executed. In all, five groups of Spanish Augustinians totalling 180 friars were martyred during the Civil War.
During that war, the sixty-five members of the Order of Saint Augustine in the El Escorial who were executed are among the 498 Spanish Martyrs who were beatified (i.e., officially called “Blessed”) by Pope Benedict XVI in October 2007.
How to visit El Escorial
On 2nd November 1984 UNESCO the Royal Site of San Lorenzo of El Escorial a World Heritage site. It is an extremely popular tourist attraction, often visited by day-trippers from Madrid. More than 500,000 visitors come to El Escorial every year.
The town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial can be reached from Madrid either by bus from Moncloa Interchange (lines 661 and 664), or by train from Atocha and Chamartín Stations. In any case the trip from Madrid takes about an hour. The El Escorial Bus Station is only a five minute walk away from the monastery. However, if you arrive at El Escorial by train at the El Escorial railway station, you will then have to take a local bus or walk for twenty minutes uphill to reach the monastery.
The El Escorial opens at 10:00 am, and a standard (hurried!) visit takes about two hours. Allow at least another hour to walk through the main esplanade (known as La Lonja), explore the surrounding gardens, and contemplate the beautiful landscapes. Neither the school nor the Augustinian section included in the tour, and are not open to the public. Also feel free to visit the tourist information office that is located in Calle Grimaldi nº 2, just in front of the Monastery on the north side.
El Escorial Visiting Times October-March: From 10:00 am to 17:00 pm. April-September: From 10:00 am to 18:00 pm. Mondays closed.
Entrance fees: 8 Euros. Wednesdays: Free for EU Citizens with identification card.
Telephone for information: (+34) 91 890 59 04 Telephone for reservations (optional): (+34) 91 890 59 05
Note: Some of the above details may have changed in recent times.
Persons who do not read Spanish should look at the Spanish web sites as well, as the photography in them is well worth seeing.
El Escorial. A fortress, palace, and monastery (and with one of the best stocked libraries in the world and it), this impressive structure covers a rectangular area of over 30,000 square m. It was built to honour San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence) after the Spaniards defeated the French on that feast day (10th August 1557). King Philip II charged his scholars to find a suitable place for such a huge building, and they chose a plateau where a poor small village lay. Five years later construction began, and over the next twenty two years the El Escorial was built. Read more in English at: http://cyberspain.com/passion/sanloren.htm
The Escorial. Thirty seven large photographs, taken by Mary Ann Sullivan in 2002, who generously says, "Please feel free to use them for personal or educational purposes." Excellent internal and external views. http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/spain/madrid/escorial/escorial.html
Seventy-six photos of El Escorial. Every image helpfully captioned.http://musique09.free.fr/espagne_new2/thumbnails.php?album=25&lang=english
Photo Gallery of El Escorial. Spectacular photographs. http://www.jorgetutor.com/spain/madrid/elescorial1/elescorial.htm and http://www.jorgetutor.com/spain/madrid/elescorial2/elescorial.htm
Free Spanish Recipes. A tapas and sangria evening at home. "For a pleasant variation on wine. The recipe was given to us by a friend, an Augustinian monk in El Escorial, and it is still the best we've found." http://www.spaincooks.com/recipe.htm
You Tube. El Escorial. (6 minutes 39 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=954XEJh2szc AN4261