Art History Philip II and El Escorial
Jesús Escobar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0114


No building occupies as central a place in the architectural history of Spain than San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial, and few rulers make for a more compelling historical figure than the monastery-palace’s patron, the Spanish Habsburg king Philip II (b. 1527; r. 1556–1598). Realized from 1563 to 1584/1586 with ongoing decorative programs, the royal monument comprised of a basilica, monastery, palace, library, and college came to symbolize a political dynasty. Later Spanish Habsburg interventions included a Royal Pantheon begun in 1617 and new decorative schemes following a devastating fire in 1671. The history of El Escorial is supported by rich archival holdings, primarily documents but also drawings in addition to beautifully engraved images of the building commissioned by its chief architect, Juan de Herrera (c. 1530–1597). Period documents reveal the deliberative role of Philip II as a patron of the building, which, due to scholarship since the 1990s, can be understood as part of a wider cultural-political effort to establish a worldly court in Madrid with El Escorial serving as its spiritual anchor. Primary sources allow us to reconstruct the process behind the erection of the monastery-palace, thereby contributing valuable information to the history of construction and building technology for the early modern period. Despite Herrera’s considerable contributions, authorship of El Escorial’s design is a question that runs through every vein of scholarship on the monastery-palace. In an exemplary study, Wilkinson-Zerner 1993 (cited under Architects) writes that Philip II’s “love of buildings of all kinds acted like a magnet on engineers and architects, drawing them toward him and inspiring extravagant hopes and projects” (p. 170). Thus, it is no surprise that Philip is often given credit for the design of El Escorial prior to the building’s architects. Cultural exchange has emerged as a special topic with regard to the Spanish Habsburgs, whose kingdoms encompassed places in Iberia, as well as Italy, the Low Countries, the Americas, and even beyond with the annexation of Portugal in 1580. Studies of the art collections at El Escorial comprise works by famous Flemish, Italian, and Spanish artists; the library holdings with books and manuscripts in ancient and modern languages also bear witness to this phenomenon. The last sections of this bibliography explore science and letters at El Escorial and the critical reception of the monastery-palace from the late 16th century to modern times.

General Overviews

A tradition of writing about El Escorial begins with José de Sigüenza (1544–1606), a Jeronymite friar who served as Escorial librarian and prior. Sigüenza’s narration of the building’s foundation and construction was included as part of his Tercera Parte de la Historia de la Orden de San Jerónimo (Madrid 1605), a history of the religious order that first occupied the Escorial monastery. Sigüenza’s inaugural history remains an essential source for an understanding of the building and exists in modern editions including Sigüenza 1986, published to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the completion of construction around 1584–1586. Francisco de los Santos, another Jeronymite friar of note, entered the monastery of El Escorial around 1635 and from 1643 served as the maestro de capilla overseeing the Royal Basilica’s music program, among other duties. His first published “description” of the monastery-palace appeared in 1657 (facsimile, 1984) during the reign of Philip IV (b. 1605; r. 1621–1665) and provides critical information about 17th-century interventions at the Royal Pantheon, Sacristy, Royal Palace, and Basilica. Santos 1698 is his last published history of the building, offering up-to-date information on decorative schemes completed under Carlos II (b. 1661; r. 1675–1700). Ximénez 1764 continued the tradition, writing a description of the monastery-palace as it was being heralded as a highpoint of Spanish design during a period of architectural transformation with the creation of a Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. The building’s canonical status was affirmed in the first history of Spanish architecture penned in the 1770s and 1780s and published as Llaguno y Amirola 1829. Today, the starting point for research on El Escorial’s design and construction is Bustamante García 1994, whose achievement seems to meet the challenge set forth by scholars in the two-volume Vivanco 1953–1963. This publication marked the 400th anniversary of the laying of the building’s cornerstone in 1563 and helps us understand the building’s appropriation as a nationalist moment during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who authored the first essay. Kubler 1982 offers another fine contribution to the modern history of El Escorial, with particular attention to its construction as well as the building’s interpretation. The architectural historian Fernando Marías has also authored important articles about the monastery-palace, some of which are incorporated into Marías 1989. García-Frias Checa and Sancho 2008 is a useful introduction for the armchair traveler, and Kamen 2010 offers an idiosyncratic history of the building.

  • Bustamante García, Agustín. La Octava Maravilla del Mundo: Estudio histórico sobre El Escorial de Felipe II. Madrid: Alpuerto, 1994.

    Monumental tome that offers a summation of knowledge about the conception, building, and interpretation of El Escorial. Ten chapters fill 687 pages in what is really two books, one comprised of transcriptions of archival documents from Spain, Italy, and elsewhere that fill the lengthy footnotes. The quality of images does not match the scholarly apparatus of this book, which is an essential read for the Escorial’s 16th-century history. Excellent bibliography.

  • García-Frias Checa, Carmen, and José Luis Sancho. Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Madrid: Patrimonio Nacional, 2008.

    Tourist guidebook offering a helpful introduction to the building and its history, along with a ground plan.

  • Kamen, Henry. The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

    The book’s primary contribution is the attention it provides to Philip’s early travels as prince to northern Italy and especially Germany, where Kamen identifies a possible architectural inspiration for El Escorial. The claim lacks a real argument but serves the purpose of posing new questions about the international climate that informed Philip’s artistic and architectural patronage. Oddly lacking in recent bibliography, the book is an accessible read but also idiosyncratic.

  • Kubler, George. Building the Escorial. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

    This impressive book tackles the design and building history as well as style of the El Escorial in compact, informative chapters. Kubler’s work is based on minute attention to archival sources and extensive, on-site analysis. It also offers a generous synthesis of the work of earlier scholars beginning with Sigüenza and an unsurpassed survey of writing about El Escorial and its “changing fame.” Excellent source for undergraduates.

  • Llaguno y Amirola, Eugenio. Noticias de los arquitectos y arquitectura de España desde su restauración. 4 vols. Edited by Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez. Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1829.

    This bedrock study of Spanish architectural history established El Escorial and the era of Philip II as the summa of Spanish architectural design. The author was an official of the Royal Academy of History and the editor one of the founders of art history in Spain as well as member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Ceán Bermúdez’s contributions are formidable and include documentary finds about Juan de Herrera (see Architects).

  • Marías, Fernando. El Largo Siglo XVI: Los usos artísticos del Renacimiento español. Madrid: Taurus, 1989.

    Survey of Renaissance artistic trends and developments in Spain from the late 15th century to around the year 1600. Composed of previously published essays, the book includes rich material on El Escorial and its impact on the cultural life of 16th-century Spain. Includes a reworking of an important essay on El Escorial and its interpretation as a monument to Divine Wisdom.

  • Santos, Francisco de los. Descripcion del Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, unica maravilla del mundo. 4th ed. Madrid: Juan García Infançon, 1698.

    The fourth edition varies little from the third (Madrid: Bernardo de Villa Diego, 1681) but includes information about frescoes executed by Luca Giordano from 1692 to 1694. With this information, the edition offers the most complete history of El Escorial for the whole of the Spanish Habsburg era. An English translation by George Thompson was published in London in 1760 with new copperplates. (1st edition, Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1657).

  • Sigüenza, Fray José de. La Fundación del Monasterio de El Escorial. Madrid: Turner, 1986.

    Foundational study of the building of El Escorial, and Bustamante García 1994 labels it one of the great works of Spanish literature. An edition was also issued for the 1963 anniversary of the laying of the building’s cornerstone.

  • Vivanco, Luis Felipe. El Escorial. 2 vols. Madrid: Ediciones Patrimonio Nacional, 1953–1963.

    Two large-scale volumes with contributions from leading scholars, architects, and political figures. Volume 1 explores history and literature, and Volume 2 is devoted to architecture and the arts. Essays by Luis Cervera Vera on Juan de Herrera, Secundino Suazo Ugalde on design precedents for the monastery-palace, and Luis Moya Blanco on the composition of the building are some of the stand-out contributions regarding architecture. Volume 2 includes excellent information about painting, sculpture, engraving, furniture, ceramics, and more.

  • Ximénez, Andrés. Descripcion del Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial: Su magnifico templo, panteón, y palacio. Madrid: Antonio Marín, 1764.

    Follows in the tradition established by Siguenza and elaborated by De los Santos and updated for the neoclassical era, a time of radical change in Spanish architectural practice following the establishment of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid.

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