Arts and Literature of Spain's Golden Century

The century from 1550 to 1650 is often referred to as Spain's siglo de oro (SEEG loh day OHR oh), or “golden century,” for the brilliance of its arts and literature. Philip II was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and also founded academies of science and mathematics.


Among the famous painters of this period was a man known as El Greco, meaning “the Greek.” Though not Spanish by birth, El Greco became a master of Spanish painting. Born on the Greek island of Crete, El Greco had studied in Italy before settling in Spain. He produced haunting religious pictures and striking portraits of Spanish nobles, done in a dramatically elongated style.

Painting of a city scape in a pastoral setting with roads, buildings and hills drawn exaggeratedly and with deep colors.

The Spanish painter El Greco was born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Greece. The View of Toledo, shown here, was one of the very few landscapes done by El Greco. It shows his elongated, dramatic style.

El Greco's use of vibrant colors influenced the work of Diego Velázquez (vuh LAHS kes), court painter to King Philip IV. Velázquez is perhaps best known for his vivid portraits of Spanish royalty.


Spain's golden century produced several outstanding writers. Lope de Vega (LOH pay duh VAY guh), a peasant by birth, wrote more than 1,500 plays, including witty comedies and action-packed romances.

During Spain's golden age, Miguel de Cervantes (sur VAN teez) wrote Europe's first modern novel. Don Quixote pokes fun at medieval tales of chivalry. The elderly Don Quixote has read too many tales of days when fictional knights were bold. Imagining himself a medieval knight, he sets out across the Spanish countryside dressed in rusty armor. By his side is his practical servant, Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote mocks the traditions of Spain's feudal past. At the same time, Cervantes depicts with affection both the earthy realism of Sancho and the foolish but heroic idealism of Don Quixote.

Royal Power Expands in France

Like Philip II in Spain, French rulers were determined to expand royal power. France was torn apart by wars of religion in the late 1500s. Then a new dynasty, the Bourbons, rose to power and built the foundations for an absolute monarchy in France.

Wars of Religion

After the Hundred Years' War, French kings slowly consolidated power over their lands. In the 1500s, rivalry with Spain and the Protestant Reformation posed new challenges for France. Religious wars between the Catholic majority and French Protestants, called Huguenots (HYOO guh nahts), tore France apart. Leaders on both sides used the strife to further their own ambitions.

Each side committed terrible acts of violence. The worst began on St. Bartholomew's Day (a Catholic holiday), August 24, 1572.

While Huguenot and Catholic nobles were gathered for a royal wedding, a Catholic plot led to the massacre of 3,000 Huguenots. In the next few days, thousands more were slaughtered. For many, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre symbolized the complete breakdown of order in France.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments