>Today is the Feast of St. Lawrence, a deacon martyred along with Pope St. Sixtus II during the persecutions of the Emperor Valerian. St. Lawrence, a native of Spain, was put to death on August 10th in 258 A.D., in the city of Rome, by being roasted alive on a gridiron. He has been a popular saint for many centuries, as anyone studying art history knows: there are dozens of churches and chapels named for him.
Of all of these structures however, the most famous and impressive is that of The Escorial, more properly The Royal Basilica and Monastery of Saint Laurence, located about half an hour outside outside of Madrid. The nickname “escorial”, or “slag-heap”, refers to the fact that it is located in an arid area of former iron mines, littered with slag and other refuse from the defunct mining operations. The complex not only includes an enormous church and monastery, but also a palace, library, art gallery, gardens, and the necropolis of the kings of Spain. Under the Hapsburgs in particular, it served as the center of imperial power within the country, until the monarchy gradually shifted the locus of power to Madrid.
El Escorial was commissioned to commemorate an important victory of Philip II over Henry II of France at the Battle of Saint Quentin on the Feast of St. Lawrence in 1557. The layout of the complex, as can be seen in the photo below, resembles a gridiron, supposedly to commemorate the manner of St. Lawrence’s martyrdom. Whether an intentional act or simply happy accident, the gridiron design provided the architects with many patios and courtyards to relieve the stark exterior facade of the building. Descriptions of the Temple of Solomon also had a significant impact on the final product.
There are many things to study and marvel at in the complex. However, one of my favorite portions of the structure is the Patio of the Kings, which serves as the entrance to the basilica itself. The rather severe classical facade features massive statues of six of the (comparatively better) Kings of Judah sculpted by Juan Bautista Monegro, including David and Solomon. It reminded the Kings of Spain, no doubt, when they came to the Basilica that they, too, would have a difficult road to travel if they were to attain Heaven, since even those kings of the Old Testament beloved by God often got themselves into trouble.