Built at the end of the 16th century on a plan in the form of a grill, the instrument of the martyrdom of St Lawrence, the Escurial Monastery stands in an exceptionally beautiful site in Castile. Its austere architecture, a break with previous styles, had a considerable influence on Spanish architecture for more than half a century. It was the retreat of a mystic king and became, in the last years of Philip II's reign, the centre of the greatest political power of the time.
An exemplary votive monument, the retreat of a mystic king, the Escurial was, during the closing years of the reign of Philip II, the paradoxical centre of the greatest political power of that period. This royal monastery dedicated to St Lawrence is a unique artistic achievement. There is nothing in the project, in the form or in the design of this monument, which is not exceptional. Although out of keeping with the national temperament, the Escurial exerted a considerable influence in Spain during almost half a century: the gigantic unfinished cathedral of the Asunción of Valladolid was begun around 1580 by Herrera in the same severe style.
The construction of the monastery and site of the Escurial in Madrid was the realization of an unusual vow by Philip II of Spain in repentance for having shelled the church San Lorenzo in 1577. This explains the gigantic expiatory monastery, the general plan of which reproduces the form of an inverted griddle, the instrument of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. The handle is represented by the Royal Palace, which projects on the eastern side, and four angle towers, 55 m high, represent the feet. The college, the convent and the cloister, all quadrangular in plan, are placed on either side of the central court (Patio de los Reyes) which precedes the church; it is constructed of a bluish granite from Guadarrama.
This ensemble was begun in 1563 by Juan Bautista de Toledo and completed in 1584 by Juan de Herrera. The treatment, deliberately austere, offers a vivid contrast to the traditional Spanish architecture of the Renaissance. Within the church, however, the Capilla Mayor was given a decor as rich as it was imposing: the retablo, 30 m high, the work of an Italian team under the orders of Herrera, unites coloured marbles, paintings, gilding and large bronze statues; in the lateral oratories, two renowned groups, modelled and cast in bronze by Pompeo and Leone Leoni, represent, on the side of the Gospel, Charles V with his family, and on the side of the Epistle, Philip II among his family, dressed in their magnificent attire and frozen in prayer.
Beneath the church is the sepulchral vault of the kings of Spain, whose principal crypt (Pantheon of the Kings) is an octagonal chamber faced with pietra dura incorporating ornaments of gilded bronze.