San Lorenzo del Escorial: the palace complex of King Philip II of Spain, late sixteenth century. Architects: Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera.

Carlos Eire, author of A Brief History of Eternity (Princeton, 2009), examines how “Catholics embraced their dead even more tightly than before” in response to the Protestant Reformation. Here is a breathtaking account of morbidity from the sixteenth century:
In Spain, arguably the most influential Catholic nation on earth at the time, a prime exemplar of this renewed Tridentine piety was the king himself, Philip II, who worked very hard at reifying not only his role as a Catholic monarch but also the church’s power over the dead, and the bond between the living and the dead. For starters, King Philip built for himself and his successors a palace-monastery complex unlike any other on earth, the axis of which was the cult of the dead. Built between 1563 and 1596, at the cost of an entire year’s worth of treasure from the New World, the immense structure of San Lorenzo del Escorial was in its day the largest building in the world. Within its perimeter, Philip crammed a palace, monastery, basilica, library, and seminary, along with 8,000 relics of the saints, the world’s largest and most meticulously catalogued collection, to which were assigned tens of millions of years of indulgences. Staffed by Hieronymite monks, whose sole purpose was to pray for the king and the royal family, both living and dead, the monastery at San Lorenzo was a veritable ritual machine, where masses were offered constantly at numerous altars–except when the Hieronymite rule forced the monks to sleep–and where hundreds of monks chanted the entire psalter day after day, ceaselessly.

Not content with merely living with his monks and priests, King Philip also build his private chambers as close as possible to heaven, directly behind the main altar of the basilica, which was flanked on all sides by the 8,000 relics, and he positioned his room in such a way as to be able to see the main altar from his bed. Directly below the altar, and therefore also beneath his bed, Philip built an immense crypt for the entire Hapsburg dynasty, including his father, himself, and all his future successors to the throne. Whenever Philip stayed at the Escorial, which was as often as he possibly could, he lived and worked and slept directly over his father’s corpse and the grave he himself would soon occupy, as well as the grave of his son and of all descendants not yet born.

In his will, Philip addressed so many saintly intercessors that his list of advocates matched name for name the total list of saints invoked in every will written in Madrid. He also pulled out all the stops when it came to suffrages, consigning the Hieronymite fathers to perpetual labor and laying heavy demands on priests elsewhere. Even the Escorial was not enough. First, Philip wanted masses to be said by every single priest at the Escorial for nine days following his death. Then he asked for 30,000 masses to be said “as quickly as possible” by Franciscans throughout the realm, “with the greatest devotion.” Not content with this, Philip also requested that a High Mass be said for his soul at the main altar of the Escorial basilica every single day until Christ’s second coming, and added a special prayer for his soul to the Hieronymites’ daily canonical hours. Let us not even consider how many tens of thousands of other masses he requested for his relatives, or how he dwelt on every detail of his funeral, or how he practiced dying, or how many memorial services were held throughout the realm after his death and how many hundreds of thousands of candles were used. It might make us lose all our bearings.

Lest this hallucinatory tour of the Escorial prove unimpressive, given that extravagance befits a king, let us consider that Philip and his prayer factory-cum-city of the dead were just the tip of the iceberg. What we find when we examine the wills of his subjects are thousands upon hundreds of thousands, even millions of mirrors reflecting the same sort of obsession, only at a relatively smaller scale. Taken as a whole, the masses and prayers requested by Spaniards during the time of Philip II and his successors, Philip III and Philip IV, would dwarf the efforts at the Escorial and make them seem like a mere period at the end of one sentence in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. When the cost is finally tallied some time in the future, as I am sure it will be, chances are that the amount of money spent by the subjects of these three Philips on their souls and those of their dead could easily dwarf the amount spent by the monarchs and add up to much more than several years’ worth of treasure from the New World.

Providence, I believe, compelled the Protestant Reformers to bury this cult of the dead so that Christians could return to the land of the living.

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