El Escorial – The World’s largest Renaissance Building

A distant view of the Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Image by Ecemaml

On September 13, 1584, the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, about 45 kilometers northwest of the Spanish capital, Madrid, is finished. El Escorial is the world largest Renaissance building.

Philip II of Spain appointed the Spanish architect, Juan Bautista de Toledo, to be his collaborator in the design of El Escorial. The architect had already worked on St. Peter‘s basilica in Rome and participated in several projects in Naples. He was announced architect-royal in 1559, and together they designed El Escorial as a monument to Spain‘s role as a center of the Christian world. The building’s cornerstone was laid on 23 April 1563. Unfortunately, Juan Bautista de Toledo did not live to see the completion of the project. After his death, his apprentice Juan de Herrera was appointed to finish the complex. It has since then been the burial site for most of the Spanish kings of the last five centuries.

The basilica of San Lorenzo el Real was originally designed to take the form of a Latin cross. However, this plan was modified by Juan de Herrera to that of a Greek cross, a form with all four arms of equal length. Behind the altar is a three-tiered reredos, made of red granite and jasper, nearly twenty-eight metres tall and adorned with gilded bronze statuary by Leone Leoni, and three sets of religious paintings commissioned by Philip II. Next to the main altar of the Basilica, the residence of King Philip II is made up of a series of austerely decorated rooms with windows from which the king could observe mass from his bed.

Another important part of the complex is the Pantheon of the Kings, which consists of twenty-six marble sepulchers containing the remains of the kings and queens regnant. The most recent monarch interred in the pantheon is King Alfonso XIII, removed there from the Church of Santa Maria in Monserrato, Rome in 1980. Another highly impressive part of the complex is the library. Philip II donated his personal collection of documents to the building, and also undertook the acquisition of the finest libraries and works of Spain and foreign countries. The library’s collection consists of more than 40,000 volumes, located in a great hall fifty-four meters in length, nine meters wide and ten meters tall with marble floors and beautifully carved wood shelves. Also numerous illuminated manuscripts, such as the Ottonian Golden Gospels of Henry III can be found there. he vault of the library’s ceiling is decorated with frescoes depicting the seven liberal arts: Rhetoric, Dialectic, Music, Grammar, Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy. Back in the day, the library was protected from inquisitional oversight, it preserved many prohibited books that were thought to be removed. The only known copy of the Kitab al-I’tibar, a 12th-century Syrian autobiography, was discovered there in the 19th century.

In 1984, UNESCO declared The Royal Seat of San Lorenzo of El Escorial a World Heritage Site and more than 500000 tourists visit the complex every year

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture about the Renaissance in Northern Europe and Spain.

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