Larger Than Life: Art that inspires us through the ages
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By James Howard Smith
King Philip II inherited the Spanish Empire in 1556, including territories on every continent then known to Europeans. During his reign, the Spanish kingdoms reached the height of their influence and power.
The king was named “Philip the Prudent” due to his care and thought for the future. He was devoted to God; he upheld and defended Catholicism in Europe to preserve the faith.
In 1559, Philip appointed Juan Bautista de Toledo to the position of royal architect. Bautista had worked on St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Rome, for most of his career. Together, they conceived the design of El Escorial as the crucible for the Spanish Empire.
Philip envisioned El Escorial as a center for spiritual life and for studies. The environment was meant to foster breadth of wisdom, culture, and refinement. It was, at once, a monastery, convent, basilica, library, school, and hospital, as well as the Spanish royal palace.
Philip was the greatest patron of Spanish art and culture during the early phase of the Spanish Golden Age, a period during which arts and literature flourished, hence El Escorial also held an enormous collection of art.
El Escorial’s cornerstone was laid on April 23, 1563, and the building was completed in 1584, less than 21 years later. The building would serve as a wellspring for the Spanish Empire for 400 years and would be regarded as the sacred center of the Catholic world.
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