El Escorial: the chosen living place of King Felipe II, the Prudent, who reigned from 1556 to 1598. Built in San Lorenzo de El Escorial in honor of said saint, who was martyred on a giant grill during Roman times. Built to house the über spiritual Felipe and his family. Built in an odd combination of palace and monastery, royal glory and monastic austerity. Sequestered in the peaceful quiet of the mountains just north of Madrid, this interesting residence overlooks a sweeping panorama, placed the king above his subjects both literally and figuratively.
The imposing walls sweep up from a stern courtyard on two sides and on the other two from a sliver of garden that crowns the very edge of the hilltop. Crowning the various towers that quietly adorn the roof is the cupola of the basilica within the monastery, a reminder that the church reigns supreme over all life within the walls. There are other reminders of the church throughout the building, from the hundreds of religious paintings to the private rooms adjacent to the quarters of the king and queen that connected them to the basilica and allowed them to attend mass without leaving their own rooms. The halls and rooms are, for the most part, rather small, with low ceilings and an economy of windows. Even the rooms where the king met with courtiers are not exceedingly large or magnificent. One of the largest and most decorated rooms is the Hall of Battles, with vaulted and delicately painted ceiling and a full panel of windows that line one of the walls covered in murals depicting important military victories during Felipe’s reign. This hall is a sort of history class in and of itself, teaching the viewer a bit about the conquests of the Spanish army while walking its length in open-eyed silence.
Perhaps the single place in El Escorial that most strongly demonstrates the presence of royalty is the Pantheon of Kings, the burial place of the kings and queens from Carlos I to modern days. This circular room beneath the basilica, beautifully constructed of marble of various colors, displays the coffins of the rulers of Spain for more than 400 years. There are a few exceptions of sovereigns who have been buried in other places, but these number in a small minority. Interestingly enough, this near continuous interment of royal bodies has brought the country to a question of debate: There are only two more coffins available, which will be filled once the bodies of the father and mother of the current king, Juan Carlos I, have finished decomposing in another location…so where will Juan Carlos be buried? There is no space for him to be buried with his forefathers. There is still a fair amount of space in the nearby Pantheon of Princes, but those tombs are for the offspring of kings, not kings themselves. So where will today’s king and queen be buried when they die? Who knows?
By far the most majestic area of El Escorial is the basilica, as makes sense, given Felipe II’s supreme devotion to his faith. Inside, the magnificently frescoed ceiling is held up by towering walls of smooth stone and hangs over an incredible altarpiece that rises from the floor in tier upon tier of painting masterpieces and golden sculptures. It’s austere and serene, quiet in a sort of ponderous dignity and majesty. Outside, the architecture echoes the feeling of simple dignity, with clean lines that bespeak both power and calm, dominating the complex as a whole.
By far the most beautiful area is the gardens. From the windows above, intricate designs show up in the calm green of the shrubbery, and from the ground, quiet fountains bubble in the middle of sedate hedges backed by an absolutely gorgeous view – the hills bow their verdant heads at the feet of the palace, giving way to the rolling plane on which the metropolis of Madrid is just visible. The sun shines gently on the grounds, chasing away the chill that comes from spending the day inside thick stone walls.
And there you have it, El Escorial, the place from which Felipe II spearheaded the Counter Reformation, from which he directed a country in the middle of its literary Golden Age, from which he commanded the Spanish Armada to sail against England, from which he controlled a veritable empire spanning the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, all the while devoting a large portion of his time to the observance of the Catholic faith in his own basilica and monastery. Retired and peaceful, it is indeed an oddity in its own fashion, the home of kings, the resting place of kings, a monastic palace, and a palatial monastery.