King Philip II Influence on Spanish Architecture and Power

King Philip II Influence on Spanish Architecture and Power

By Kathleen Crouch


This research paper examines the historical figure King Philip II of Spain and how his powerful position influenced Spanish architecture in the late Renaissance. Classicism was favored by The Crown and the elites, so the King proceeded to implement the novel style into the once gothic Spanish cities. His desire to expand the Spanish empire created an opportunity for new architecture and design. This paper will discuss the famous architect that Philip II hired, as well as his most celebrated buildings. There will be a focus on San Lorenzo of El Escorial; a grand classical palace in Madrid that was designed by Juan De Herrera. Philip trusted De Herrera to create wealthy buildings worthy of his Habsburg inheritance, and their dynamic duo of ruler and designer pushed the urban renewal of Madrid. There will be an explanation of how the king transformed Madrid into a dominant capitol city and home to the royal court. Specifically, the creation of public spaces merged different social classes together. Other Spanish architecture that will gain deserved recognition in this research include Plaza Mayor and Valladolid Cathedral. While the world of the Habsburgs was vastly influential in terms of succeeding, Philip II is considered the most prominent contributor to Spanish greatness. He was born in Valladolid, Spain on May 21st, 1527. As any other royal child would, Philip he received a prestigious, well-rounded education. He had an early passion for religion and the arts. Philip was known to follow strict routines and emotionally distance himself from others as a child and into adolescence. 2 Philip II of Spain and Princess Maria Manuela married in 1543. Maria was the daughter of Portuguese king John III and Catherin of Spain, Philip’s Aunt. The purpose of this marriage, at only the age of 16, was to strengthen relations between Portugal and Spain because both countries were rising dynasties. Unfortunately, Maria died giving birth to their first child only two years after the wedding. He remarried in 1553 to Mary Tudor of England in hopes to return Britain to the fold of the Catholic church. Efforts were unsuccessful, and Philip traveled from England to back Spain ready to take over his father’s power of the most extensive empire in the world. Philip II of Spain inherited the Spanish crown from his father Emperor Charles V in 1556.3

Spanish Renaissance Architecture

Renaissance architecture is known to have begun in Northern Italy due to political power, expertise in craft, and overall wealthiness.4 Most notably, a greater emphasis was put on the studies of humanities. Humanities challenged the standing Medieval world’s perspectives that the Catholic church held. Italy experienced a revival of classical architecture that would soon spread over the century.5 We can define humanities as a series of secular topics including grammar, rhetoric, history, philosophy, or any aspect relating to human society and culture. Writings about humanities became easily accessible from country to country as printing developed. The renaissance is organized into three parts: early renaissance from 1400-1500, high renaissance from 1500-1525, and late renaissance from 1525 into the 16th century. Renaissance architecture emphasizes proportion, symmetry, and order pertaining classical motifs. You will find semicircular arches, domes, square plans, and facades that are symmetrical around the vertical axis.

Renaissance and the humanities reached Spain when Philip II was brought into power during the late renaissance. Spain was an extremely catholic city with an urban culture. The people of Spain were familiar and comfortable with the current gothic style, opposed to classicism. Spain was involved in war with France and declared bankrupt in 1557. Charles power politics were seemingly failing, but the war ended in victory for the Spanish forces. His wife Mary passed away in 1558. The Treaty of Château Cambrésis in 1559 ended any inherited conflicts for Philip from his father.2 Philip’s foremost step into implementing Renaissance architecture into his country was to establish a powerful capitol. Madrid is in the center of the country, distant from any bordering country lines. Although Madrid was known at the time to be a backwater, nonassertive town with limited opportunity, Philip saw potential. Spain never had a capitol or home base, and Spain’s location was ideal as it sits in a plateau overlooking valleys and a river ideal for protection and defense purposes.4

Juan de Herrera’s El Escorial

Philip II of Spain tackled a novel form of ruling; he developed a strong system of officials and diplomats that oversaw communications considering he only spoke Spanish and was an introverted, solitary personality. He presumed to rule his empire from Madrid and was able to control the architecture and art of his city. This is when Juan De Herrera came into play, Philip’s beloved architect. Juan De Herrera was born in Mobellán, Santander Province in 1530. Born into a noble family, he completed his studies at the University of Valladolid in 1548. He trained in architecture, geometry, mathematics, astronomy, and so forth. He was a true intellectual and Philip discovered his potential when the construction of San Lorenzo of El Escorial began in the early 1560’s. The original architect the monarchy hired was Juan Bautista de Toledo, a disciple of Michelangelo. Toledo passed away in 1563, so his assistant Juan De Herrera took over the position.3 Juan was able to prove his talents as he added a variety of innovation to Toledo’s original floor plan including new facades and a sober style of design. Herrera largened Toledo’s plan and implemented horizonal unified composition and granite and slate as a nude material.6 The Royal Monastery of El Escorial demonstrated the power of the Spanish Empire. 

The Escorial is home to a massive library, famous paintings and artwork, and sculptures. There is also a science academy, school, and a mausoleum of the kings of Spain. The lack of wall ornamentation and the repetition of openings and geometrics created a monumental, grand, yet unfriendly institution.4 Philip expressed to Juan that The Escorial was to commemorate defeating the French as well as provide an exceptional burial place for his father, Charles V. The exterior the Monastery measures 207 x 161 meters, 20 meters high, and 55-meter-high towers protecting each corner, creating a square, iron grill ground plan that is said to have been martyred in Rome. 7 The south façade of the building is evident of classicism due to the repeating rows and columns of windows and perfect semicircular arches. A fundamental component of the main entrance façade would be the six Doric columns each holding a sculpture. It is important to note that King Philip II was heavily involved in the design and construction of the building. He had a passion for architecture and was strategic about what the Escorial was to represent. Philip provided specific instructions for Herrera to promote “simplicity in the construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation.”8 The palace symbolized the sober spirit of Counter- Reformation Spain in response to Protestantism. Escorial needed to impress and stimulate security and power. 

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Figure 1. South Façade. 9

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Figure 2. Library. 10

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Figure 3. El Escorial, Birdseye View. 11 
Figure 4. Main Entrance. 11
Figure 5. Interior Vaulting. 11 

Plaza Mayor 

While El Escorial launched political power of the royal crown and noble persona, the integration of public spaces influenced the merging of social classes in Madrid and therefore future functionality of social status. Public parks, courtyards, and streets were a novel idea in the 15th and 16th centuries. De Herrera undertook the original design and idea of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Originally a marketplace for food and goods, the plaza developed into space for a variety of social events including jousting matches, bullfights, crowning ceremonies, and so on.12 Located right in the city, this public space provided opportunity for different social classes to gather and experience each other’s presence, opening the door to new opportunities and an understanding of the contributions everyone brings to the city’s success. 

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Figure 6. Plaza Mayor. 13
Figure 7. Plaza Mayor. 13
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Figure 8. Cristóbal de Villalpando, View of the Plaza Mayor, 1695. 14

Valladolid Cathedral

Valladolid Cathedral was also designed by Juan de Herrera and the beginning of the 16th century. The church pertains De Herrera’s renowned pure and sober style. The main façade is made of up two stretches of columns. The lower part is Juan de Herrera’s work, and the upper part is Churriguera’s work. Such layers imply an accumulation of successive periods, proof of the deep history of Spain. Herrera did not finish the church because of the lack of resources and expenses, but it was sought to be the largest church in Europe if construction proceeded as planned. Churriguera’s finishing work is characterized by decorative elements, opposite of Herrera’ style. This makes it evident that the cathedral’s architecture adapted over time. 

Figure 9. Valladolid Cathedral. 15
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Figure 10. Valladolid Cathedral. 15

By the 17th Century, Madrid had been transform ed into a dignified capitol, thanks to King Philip II and partnering architect Juan de Herrera. Spain initially loved the Gothic style, so the people were less accepting of classicism at first. The crown, elites, and religious authorities were oppositely very attracted to the prestige of classicism and began to implement it throughout the region. Spain valued art, as it played a role in the Catholic church. Spain was a diverse country with polarizing political beliefs bouncing off from Aragon to Navarra to Granada. The country lacked a capitol, and King Philip II influenced the turning of Madrid into the capitol of the Spanish Monarchy. Madrid was not seen as a thriving town at first due to its unimpressive aesthetic, lack of water access, and they were hadn’t caught up to the innovations that the rest of Europe had. Fortunately, the king and his partner adapted the city into a powerful heart of Spain by integrating renaissance architecture and public spaces. This was not the kings only success for Spain. He remained invincible against the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean and the Protestant Reformation in the Netherlands, as well as defeating France. The king passed away at the age of 71 in the Escorial in 1598 due to complications with Malaria. Juan de Herrera died just a year before, also in Madrid.2

Figure 11. Timeline

1 Sofonisba Anguissola, “Philip II – The Collection – Museo Nacional Del Prado,” Museo Nacional Del Prado, accessed December 14, 2021,

2 “Philip II: Youth and Influences,” Die Welt Der Habsburger, accessed December 14, 2021,

3 “Philip II of Spain Facts, Worksheets, Early Life & Background,” School History, last modified September 16, 2021,

4 Juan Burke Lecture, 2021

5 “Renaissance Architecture in 16th Century Spain,” last modified June 21, 2019,

6 “Biography of HERRERA, Juan De in the Web Gallery of Art,” Web Gallery of Art, Searchable Fine Arts Image Database, accessed December 14, 2021,

7  “El Escorial. History, Content, Significance,” Spain Then and Now, last modified July 25, 2019,

 8 Ian Robertson, Blue Guide: Spain (2002)

9 “Architects of Madrid: Juan De Herrera,” Comunidad De Madrid, last modified May 4, 2020,

10 “Architects of Madrid: Juan De Herrera,” Comunidad De Madrid, last modified May 4, 2020,

11  “El Escorial Photos and Premium High Res Pictures,” Royalty Free Stock Photos, Illustrations, Vector Art, and Video Clips – Getty Images, accessed December 14, 2021,

 12  Lori Zaino, “A Brief History of the Plaza Mayor,” Culture Trip, last modified March 16, 2017,

 13   “Plaza Mayor Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images,” Stock Images, Royalty-Free Pictures, Illustrations & Videos – IStock, accessed December 14, 2021,

 14  Cristóbal de Villalpando, View of the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City, c. 1695, oil on canvas (Corsham Court Collection, Wiltshire)

15   “Valladolid Cathedral,” Cityseeker, accessed December 14, 2021,


Anguissola, Sofonisba. “Philip II – The Collection – Museo Nacional Del Prado.” Museo Nacional Del Prado. Accessed December 14, 2021.

“Architects of Madrid: Juan De Herrera.” Comunidad De Madrid. Last modified May 4, 2020.

“Architects of Madrid: Juan De Herrera.” Comunidad De Madrid. Last modified May 4, 2020.

“Biography of HERRERA, Juan De in the Web Gallery of Art.” Web Gallery of Art, Searchable Fine Arts Image Database. Accessed December 14, 2021.

“El Escorial Photos and Premium High Res Pictures.” Royalty Free Stock Photos, Illustrations, Vector Art, and Video Clips – Getty Images. Accessed December 14, 2021.

“El Escorial. History, Content, Significance.” Spain Then and Now. Last modified July 25, 2019.

Fernández-González, Laura. Philip II of Spain and the Architecture of Empire. University Park: Penn State Press, 2021. 

“Philip II of Spain Facts, Worksheets, Early Life & Background.” School History. Last modified September 16, 2021.

“Philip II: Youth and Influences.” Die Welt Der Habsburger. Accessed December 14, 2021.

“Plaza Mayor Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images.” Stock Images, Royalty-Free Pictures, Illustrations & Videos – IStock. Accessed December 14, 2021.

“Renaissance Architecture in 16th Century Spain.” Last modified June 21, 2019.

Robertson, Ian. Blue Guide: Spain. 2002. 

“Valladolid Cathedral.” Cityseeker. Accessed December 14, 2021.

Wilkinson-Zerner, Catherine. Juan de Herrera: Architect to Philip II of Spain. 1993. 

Zaino, Lori. “A Brief History of the Plaza Mayor.” Culture Trip. Last modified March 16, 2017.

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