Construction of the Escorial

One of the most significant complexes built in the sixteenth century, the Escorial embodied the values of Catholic reform espoused by the devout King Philip II, a major promoter of the Counter-Reformation.

Summary of Event

The Escorial, one of the largest and most important architectural complexes constructed in the sixteenth century, was built at the direction of King Philip II of Spain between 1563 and 1584. A unique, multifunctional foundation, it included a royal pantheon, church, monastery, palace, library, college, and hospital. Its main purpose was to serve as a Habsburg Habsburg Dynasty funerary monument. To that end, the Escorial’s monastery housed an order of Hieronymite monks dedicated to offering perpetual prayers for the souls of the royal family. El Escorial, construction of
Philip II (1527-1598)
Toledo, Juan Bautista de
Herrera, Juan de
Philip II (king of Spain)
Toledo, Juan Bautista de
Herrera, Juan de
Paciotto, Francesco
Greco, El

El Escorial, which took twenty-one years to construct.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Built during the period of the Counter-Reformation Counter-Reformation[CounterReformation] , the zealous Catholic reform movement of the sixteenth century, the Escorial has been interpreted as a politically calculated symbol of the power of the Spanish monarchy and its commitment to combating the spread of Protestantism. Contemporaries hailed it as the “eighth wonder of the world.”

The Spanish architect Juan Bautista de Toledo began designing the Escorial in 1559 after Philip II named him royal architect. Known for his classicizing style, Toledo had been Michelangelo’s assistant in Rome from 1546 to 1548, when the Renaissance master was at work on St. Peter’s Basilica. Several different sources have been suggested for Toledo’s plan for the Escorial, a design in the form of blocks produced between 1559 and 1563. These sources include the ancient Roman Palace of Diocletian (295-305), the Hospital Tavera in Toledo, begun in 1541, and Spanish medieval palace-monasteries. According to tradition, the Escorial’s plan, designed as a grid, symbolically refers to the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, purportedly burned alive on a flaming gridiron. Martyrdom;symbolism The complex is dedicated to the saint, in fulfillment of a vow made by Philip II, when, on the saint’s feast day, August 10, 1557, Spanish troops destroyed a French church during the Battle of Saint-Quentin. St. Quentin, Battle of (1557)[Saint Quentin, Battle of (1557)]

In 1567, Toledo died. It seems that by 1570, Juan de Herrera, named Toledo’s assistant in 1563, was in charge of construction until the Escorial’s completion in 1584. Whereas the Escorial’s general layout can be attributed to Toledo, Herrera was responsible for the buildings’ elevations. He introduced several innovations, adding an imperial staircase and changing the basilica’s design significantly. Today, Herrera is regarded as the sole author of the complex, but it is difficult to separate his work from that of his predecessor. In addition, a number of Italian architects designed or consulted at the Escorial, including, most important, Francesco Paciotto.

The myth that Herrera was the Escorial’s sole designer can, in fact, be traced to the architect himself. In 1589, he published a series of eleven engravings of the Escorial’s plans, elevations, and sections with accompanying text promoting this very notion. In all fairness, though, Herrera presided over most of the construction and was responsible for its coherent style, combining sober classicism with Flemish-style roofs and spires.

The Escorial’s main entrance, located on the west façade, illustrates Herrera’s stylistic synthesis. It takes the form of an ecclesiastical temple front, uniting two levels of classical orders, a triangular pediment, and a high-pitched Flemish pavilion. This entrance leads to the most important structures of the complex—the library, basilica, and royal pantheon. The monastery and the adjacent royal apartments can be found on the Escorial’s south side, while the college, additional royal apartments, and suites for courtiers and visiting dignitaries are located to the north.

The basilica, built between 1557 and 1586, is a core building of the Escorial. It functions as both palace chapel and monastic church. Scholars have detected the influence of several Italian Renaissance architects here, including Leon Battista Alberti. The basilica’s plan, a centralized configuration of a Greek cross within a square, reflects Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’. The cupola, which rests on a high drum, is traceable to Donato Bramante’s design for St. Peter’s from 1506 to 1514. It is the first such dome in Spanish architecture. The church’s interior is sober and solemn, unified by the use of granite and articulated by majestic Doric pilasters. The lavish main altarpiece, executed in colored jaspers and gilded bronze, relieves the severe classicism of the interior. Sculptures of the royal family, by Pompeo Leoni, flank the altar, kneeling in perpetual adoration. The royal burial vaults are located below.

In addition to presiding over most of the construction of the Escorial, Herrera also oversaw its decoration, a massive undertaking that involved creating, acquiring, and arranging thousands of paintings, sculptures, altars, reliquaries, tapestries, pieces of furniture, and other decorative objects. Several Spanish artists were involved, including court painters Juan Fernández de Navarette and Alonso Sánchez Coello, among others. The vast majority of artists at work decorating the Escorial, though, were Italian, reflecting King Philip II’s taste in painting. Key painters included Romulo Cincinnato, Luca Cambiaso, Federico Zuccari, and Pellegrino Tibaldi, who worked in the dry, didactic style of the Counter-Reformation. The king demanded that all artists comply with Inquisition guidelines for sacred imagery, rejecting works that were not strictly orthodox, such as El Greco’s painting of The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice
Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, The (El Greco) (c. 1580), which he had removed from the basilica. Philip II intended that the carefully planned decoration, like the architecture itself, give visual form to his Catholic faith. The Escorial also served as a showcase for the royal art collection, one of the greatest in Europe, which included works by such Italian and Flemish luminaries as Titian, Hieronymous Bosch, and Rogier van der Weyden.

Architectural historians have offered various explanations to account for the genesis of Herrera’s restrained classicism Classicism;Spanish , called “plain style.” According to some, it represented a Christianized form of classicism. Another has detected the influence of Saint Augustine (354-430), who advocated aesthetic harmony, consonance, unity, and reason. Herrera’s style might also reflect the ideals of the medieval philosopher Raymond Lull (1235-1316), particularly in its penchant for abstraction and rational geometry. Architectural historians waver about whether to classify Herrera’s architecture as an example of Renaissance or mannerist style. More significantly, its sobriety, chastity, and gravity perfectly manifested Philip II’s religiosity as well as the ideology of the Spanish Counter-Reformation.

After its completion in 1584, the Escorial underwent various renovations through the centuries. Most important, during the reign of Philip III (r. 1598-1621), the Pantheon of the Kings was built to the designs of Giovanni Battista Crescenzi (1617-1618). The underground octagonal chamber is richly coloristic, its lavish use of marbles, colored jasper, and gilt bronze an example of the Spanish Baroque. In the 1650’, the court artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva Velázquez supervised a redecoration, commissioning new paintings by Spanish artists. From 1692 to 1694, Luca Giordano frescoed the monastery with scenes from the life of Saint Lawrence. In the 1780’s and 1790’, the architect Juan de Villanueva constructed additional service buildings and auxiliary residences. In the same century, Kings Charles IV and Ferdinand VII commissioned new fresco decorations. The Escorial underwent major restoration in the 1950’, in preparation for the fourth centennial of 1963, in which extensive termite damage was repaired.


The Escorial was one of the largest and most significant architectural complexes built in the sixteenth century. It was Philip II’s most important artistic commission. Contemporaries described it as a new Temple of Jerusalem, likening the king to Solomon. Its sober and severe style embodied the values of Catholic reform espoused by the devout Philip, a major promoter of the Counter-Reformation.

Juan de Herrera’s major contribution was his “plain style,” which established classicism as the preferred architectural language throughout Spain. The numerous workers who labored at the construction site spread the style, when, after the Escorial’s completion in 1584 they traveled to other building sites, bringing with them Herrera’s sober classicism. Herrera’s influence is visible in Spanish ecclesiastical architecture in particular, but can be observed even in the Americas, especially in the Cathedrals of Mexico City and Puebla, Mexico.

Further Reading

  • Kubler, George. Building the Escorial. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. The definitive study of the building of the Escorial. Reproduces numerous period documents.
  • Mulcahy, Rosemarie. The Decoration of the Royal Basilica of El Escorial. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. The major study of the basilica’s decoration and ornamentation.
  • Taylor, René. “Architecture and Magic: Considerations on the Idea of the Escorial.” In Essays in the History of Architecture Presented to Rudolf Wittkower, edited by Douglas Fraser, Howard Hibbard, and Milton J. Lewine. London: Phaidon, 1967. An important early study of the iconography and meaning of the building.
  • Wilkinson Zerner, Catherine. Juan de Herrera: Architect to Philip II of Spain. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. The definitive study of the architect and his work.

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