San Lorenzo de El Escorial is of great significance to Spanish Renaissance architecture. Located merely 45 kilometers from Madrid, some of the most trained spanish renaissance architects exercised their abilities to create a city fit for the King of Spain.
In present day El Escorial operates as a monastery, royal palace, museum and school. El Escorial comprises two architectural complexes of great historical and cultural significance: El Real Monasterio de El Escorial itself and La Granjilla de La Fresneda. The site was where the temporary spanish monarchy and the growing presence of Roman Catholic faiths coexisted. It was first inhabited by the Hieronymite monks, but is now a monastery of the Order of Saint Augustine.
Philip II of Spain commissioned Juan Bautista de Toledo to design and execute El Escorial – Toledo was of Spanish decent however he had been spending a great deal of time in Rome working on St.Peter’s Basilica in Naples and hence was well versed in the techniques developing in Italy. Philip and Toledo both shared a vision to design El Escorial as the center of the “Christian World”.
The building’s cornerstone was laid on April 23, 1563. The design and construction were overseen by Juan Bautista de Toledo, who did not live to see the completion of the project. With Toledo’s death in 1567, direction passed to his apprentice, Juan de Herrera, under whom the building was completed in 1584, in less than 21 years.
The concept for the design of El Escorial is highly debated however the most convincing argument for this mysterious inspiration is a description found of the Temple of Solomon that was destroyed as accounted for in the Bible. The concept was altered slightly to acclimate to all the purposes Philip had wished this building to serve. It is significantly larger that the description of the Temple of Solomon. This theory was brought forth by the Judeo-Roman historian, Flavius Josephus:
“…a portico followed by a courtyard open to the sky, followed by a second portico and a second courtyard, all flanked by arcades and enclosed passageways, leading to the “holy of holies”. Statues of David and Solomon on either side of the entrance to the basilica of El Escorial lend further weight to the theory that this is the true origin of the design. A more personal connection can be drawn between the David-warrior figure, representing Charles V, and his son, the stolid and solomonically prudent Philip II. Echoing the same theme, a fresco in the center of El Escorial’s library, a reminder of Solomon’s legendary wisdom, affirms Philip’s preoccupation with the great Jewish king, his thoughtful and logical character, and his extraordinary monumental temple…”
The first thing you find upon arriving to El Escorial is the main Façade. This has three doors: the middle one leads to the Patio de los Reyes and the side ones lead to a school and the other to a monastery. The basilica of San Lorenzo el Real, the central building in the El Escorial complex, was originally designed, like most of the late Gothic cathedrals of western Europe. As such, it has a long nave on the west-east axis intersected by a pair of shorter transepts, one to the north and one directly opposite, to the south, about three-quarters of the way between the west entrance and the high altar.
This plan was modified by Juan de Herrera to that of a Greek cross, a form with all four arms of equal length. Coincident with this shift in approach, the bell towers at the western end of the church were somewhat reduced in size and the small half-dome intended to stand over the altar was replaced with a full circular dome over the center of the church, where the four arms of the Greek cross meet.
El Escorial had eleven rooms showcasing the tools, cranes and other materials used in the construction of the site, as well as reproductions of blueprints and documents related to the project. I’d love to some day go and see the documentation of this building’s development.