This rare, early painted view depicts the greatest monument of the Counter Reformation in Spain, the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, which owes its existence to Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), who devoted much of his reign to combating the Protestant tide that was sweeping through Europe in the 16th century. On the occasion of his victory at the Battle of St. Quentin against the French troops of Henri II on Saint Lawrence's Day (10 August 1577), Philip vowed to build a great palace in the Guadarrama Mountains, northwest of Madrid, dedicated to San Lorenzo. The building was to serve as a study center for members of the Order of Saint Jerome, and its architect was named as Juan Bautista de Toledo; however, on the architect's death 1567, Philip revised his plans for the complex and instead decided to erect a monument that could serve as a worthy burial place for his father, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1588), and house a magnificent art collection. The new planning was entrusted to Juan de Herrera, who completed the building in 1584, twenty years after construction had begun.
El Escorial was immediately recognized as a dramatically modern architectural accomplishment and quickly became the focus of great admiration and curiosity. It is the subject of a number of contemporary depictions, many of which rely on engravings made after Herrara's drawings. The present work, however, reveals that its artist knew the building firsthand, as he included details that did not feature in the engravings, such as the bells on the basilica's two-sided belfries. Closely comparable to a work still preserved at the Escorial, this large canvas of costly Venetian linen may have been commissioned by a member of the royal court as decoration for one of his residences. Contemporary inventories of the royal art collections indicate that several canvases showing the Escorial existed in Spain in the early 17th century, and it is tempting to suggest that the present work may have been among them.