Batalha: The Finest Marriage of Gothic and Manueline Art in Portugal

Lynne Booker April 2012

The Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitória is not only a magnificent building, but it is also a monument which touches the very roots of patriotic pride among the Portuguese. D João Metsre de Avis had vowed to build a splendid church in honour of Our Lady should she help Portugal to achieve victory against superior Castilian forces. Defeat for D João I of Portugal would lead to a loss of independence for the kingdom.

On 14 August 1385 30,000 troops under the Castilian Juan I of Castile faced a Portuguese army under the command of D Nuno Álvares Pereira comprising 6,500 Portuguese troops and a few hundred English archers. Using the tactics with which the English had twice defeated the French during the Hundred Years War, notably the digging of disguised trenches as man-traps and the use of archers with longbows, the Portuguese won a resounding victory at Aljubarrota. Despite the overwhelming odds, within the hour the Castilian standard had been captured and within a week the invaders had been driven from the country. Keeping his pre-battle vow, D João commissioned the Mosteiro and work began in 1386.

The Church, Royal Cloister, Chapter House and Founder´s Chapel were designed and built in Gothic, Perpendicular and Flamboyant Gothic. Later additions in the Manueline style gilded the lily. The first architect was the blind Portuguese Afonso Domingues and after his death work continued under the Irishman Huguet.

The Mosteiro is set in a concrete plaza next to the busy IC2 but its magnificent west front soon makes you forget the dismal surroundings. Amidst the intricate detail, the pinnacles and flying buttresses, the main western doorway is layered with archivolts packed with carvings of the Apostles, angels, saints and prophets and the tympanum over the door has Christ and the Evangelists. The vaulted Gothic interior is plain and high and the golden yellow stained glass gives the impression of warmth. Some historians believe that Batalha was the first site in Portugal to benefit from the use of stained glass.

The Founder´s Chapel is dominated by a star-vault and is lit by an octagonal lantern. Central in the square room are the tombs of D João I and his wife Philippa of Lancaster whose marriage in 1387 cemented the special alliance between Portugal and England. The tombs of their 4 younger sons (including D Henrique the Navigator and the tragic Infante Santo, D Fernando) line the south wall.

The Gothic Royal Cloister was decorated with breathtaking Manueline carvings by Diogo de Boitac (1460- 1528). Every arch is a tangle of detailed stone carvings depicting typical Manueline symbols: armillary spheres, crosses of the Order of Christ, exotic flowers and marine motifs such as ropes, pearls and shells. This cloister is a triumph of the marriage of the Gothic and Manueline styles.

The Chapter House is famous for its huge unsupported 19 square metre vault. It was thought at the time outrageously dangerous and only prisoners on death row were employed in its construction. Afonso Domingues had faith in his design and as the scaffolding and supports were removed, he sat under the keystone for three days saying the vault did not fall, the vault will not fall. He died soon afterwards of natural causes. In the Chapter House the tomb of the Unknown Soldier enjoys a continuous guard of honour.

At the eastern end of the Mosteiro and accessible only from the outside we find the roofless unfinished chapels (Capelas Imperfeitas). D Duarte (1433 – 1438) commissioned this stone octagon as a mausoleum for his dynasty. The unfinished pillars and high doorway are covered with carvings: thistles, ivy, flowers, snails and all manner of scollops and twistifications as William Beckford noted. The octagon contains only the tombs of D Duarte and his Queen D Leonor and not the whole of the Avis dynasty as he had planned.

The Mosteiro was classified a National Monument in 1907 and achieved UNESCO Heritage Site status in 1983. In 2007 it was classified in a public vote as one of Portugal´s Seven New Wonders of the World. The Interpretation Centre (inaugurated March 2012) has made available more of the Abbey´s history through numerous audiovisual resources. The Mosteiro is not far from two other UNESCO world heritage sites: the Mosteiro at Alcobaça and the Convento do Cristo in Tomar. The three together represent the heart of Portuguese medieval architecture and each is worth a visit.