El Escorial: A Wellspring for the Spanish Empire

Larger Than Life: Art that inspires us through the ages
By James Howard Smith
James Howard Smith
James Howard Smith
James Howard Smith, an architectural photographer, designer, and founder of Cartio, aims to inspire an appreciation of classic architecture.
June 14, 2021 Updated: July 8, 2021

King Philip II inherited the Spanish Empire in 1556, including territories on every continent then known to Europeans. During his reign, the Spanish kingdoms reached the height of their influence and power. 

The king was named “Philip the Prudent” due to his care and thought for the future. He was devoted to God; he upheld and defended Catholicism in Europe to preserve the faith.

In 1559, Philip appointed Juan Bautista de Toledo to the position of royal architect. Bautista had worked on St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Rome, for most of his career. Together, they conceived the design of El Escorial as the crucible for the Spanish Empire. 

Philip envisioned El Escorial as a center for spiritual life and for studies. The environment was meant to foster breadth of wisdom, culture, and refinement. It was, at once, a monastery, convent, basilica, library, school, and hospital, as well as the Spanish royal palace. 

Philip was the greatest patron of Spanish art and culture during the early phase of the Spanish Golden Age, a period during which arts and literature flourished, hence El Escorial also held an enormous collection of art. 

El Escorial’s cornerstone was laid on April 23, 1563, and the building was completed in 1584, less than 21 years later. The building would serve as a wellspring for the Spanish Empire for 400 years and would be regarded as the sacred center of the Catholic world.

El Escorial
The building complex takes the form of a gigantic quadrangle, approximately 245 yards by 167 yards, which encloses a series of intersecting passageways and courtyards and chambers. (Tourism Madrid/CC BY-SA 2.0)
El Escorial
The Monastery of Saint Lawrence is designed in High Renaissance style. Saint Lawrence is seen looking over the forecourt with the coat of arms of King Philip II below. (Jebulon/CC BY-SA 1.0)
El Escorial
Rising above the rest of the complex are the pointed belfries (structures enclosing bells) and the round dome of the basilica. (Jose Angel Astor Rocha/Shutterstock)
El Escorial
Beyond the front portico is the Courtyard of the Kings named as such due to the notable rulers from the Old Testament sculpted and positioned on the basilica’s façade. King Solomon, who built the monumental temple in Jerusalem, stands just to the right of center. (Jose Luis Filpo Cabana/CC BY-SA 1.2)
El Escorial
At the heart of the complex lies the basilica. The austere, monotone-colored nave provides a striking contrast to emphasize the brilliant high altar and ceiling frescoes depicting divine realms. (John Silver/Shutterstock)
El Escorial
The main library was accessible to both scholars and monks. The frescoes on the barrel vaulted ceiling depict the seven liberal arts consisting of the quadrivium (astronomy, mathematics, geometry, and music) and the trivium, consisting of rhetoric, grammar, and dialectic (logic). They encompass the breadth of learning and wisdom. (Xauxa Håkan Svensson/CC BY-SA 3.0)
El Escorial
Inside the defense walls are passageways and courtyards. The Courtyard of the Fountainheads is shown here. (canadastock/Shutterstock)
El Escorial
The formal Frailes Garden in the foreground and the cooling pool (behind) that was used to cool the palace and store ice. (Unoquha/CC BY-SA 4.0)
El Escorial
The south-facing, fortress-like wall housed the monks and enclosed the building complex. (Markus Blessing/shutterstock)

James Howard Smith, an architectural photographer, designer, and founder of Cartio, aims to inspire an appreciation of classic architecture.

James Howard Smith
James Howard Smith
James Howard Smith, an architectural photographer, designer, and founder of Cartio, aims to inspire an appreciation of classic architecture.