Batalha Monastery – Part I

Born out of the faith of King João I, the Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória, commonly known as the Monastery of Batalha, gave life to its surroundings and shaped their development over more than six centuries. At its heart once stood the Quinta do Pinhal estate, purchased by the King from Egas Coelho and his mother, Maria Fernandes de Meira, not long after the triumph of Aljubarrota (1385), for the purpose of building the monastery. As the original conventual setting, he gave permission to the Dominican community to use the church that would come to be known as Santa Maria-a-Velha and its annexes, granting them ownership of the monastery in 1388. These buildings may have been adapted from others that once existed on the site.

The Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória, today known as the Monastery of Batalha, was built as a result of the promise made on the battlefield, by King João I to the Virgin Mary, under the pressure of all that was at stake, to build a monastery if victory were his, as can be read in the will written by Lopo Afonso in 1426, “on the day of the battle with the King of Castile, where Our Lady gave us victory, was to be built in honour of our Lady Saint Mary (…) and there where it had been became a monastery”.

Brief History
The Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória, also known as the Monastery of Batalha is without doubt one of the most beautiful examples of Portuguese and European architecture.

This dazzling architectural ensemble was born out of a promise the King, João I, made in thanks for his victory at Aljubarrota, a battle fought on August 14, 1385, which assured him the throne and guaranteed independence for Portugal.

The construction took over 150 years, across various phases. This is the reason why one can find not only gothic style (for the most part), but also manualine style and some renaissance touches. A number of alterations were made to the initial project, resulting in a vast monastic complex that today includes a church, two cloisters with annexed dependencies and two royal pantheons, the Founder’s Chapel and the Unfinished Chapels.

King João I gave it to the order of Saint Dominic, under the good auspices of Doctor João das Regras, chancellor of the kingdom, and Friar Lourenço Lampreia, confessor of the monarch.

In the Dominicans’ possession until the extinction of the religious orders in 1384, the monument was then incorporated within the Public Exchequer, and today it is a cultural, touristic and devotional Monument under the jurisdiction of IGESPAR, national Monument also declared World Heritage by UNESCO, in 1983.


The portico entrance to the Monastery, by Huguet and unique in the history of Portuguese art, is rife with complex iconography. Left and right of the entrance, beneath the filigreed baldachin, are the Apostles, six on each side and presented on bases fitting into intricate consoles. Above the Apostles, we see an array of emblematic figures from the celestial world: in the first two are archivolts, virgins, martyrs and confessors; and popes, bishops, deacons, monks and martyrs showing their palms, as if inviting those stepping inside to be just as virtuous as they. Within the following two archivolts are the kings of Judah, Mary’s ancestors, in other words, Christ’s own terrestrial lineage, and the prophets and patriarchs whose ministry of the word or life testimony inspired the New Testament.

The two innermost archivolts are taken up by angelic figures: the first, sitting, are musical angels; the following two, standing, represent the seraphim, with three pairs of wings. While the former herald the approach to the throne of God, calling for the soft music that is a sign of happiness in Paradise, the latter are, according to the angelic hierarchy, the closest to divinity.

On the tympanum, the figure of God dominates, literally and symbolically, this entire magnificent composition. In the centre, seated on a throne and covered with a baldachin, God is portrayed in the guise of an ancient, exuding authority as shown in the powerful raised right hand and the globe sitting in the palm of the left. Flanking it are the four seated evangelists, reading or taking notes, accompanied by their symbolic representations: Saint John with the eagle, Saint Mark with the winged lion, Saint Luke with the winged ox and Saint Matthew with the winged man.

This grand sculptural grouping is finished off with the scene of the Crowning of the Virgin.


Backing onto the right hand side of the main doorway is the Founder’s Chapel. It was not part of the original plan of the Monastery, and instead owes its construction to the decision of King João I to build a family pantheon, giving the master builder Huguet the job of its planning and construction, which was completed in about 1433/34. It is a space full of historical and artistic significance. On its completion, for the first time in Portugal there was a place exclusively destined for the function of royal pantheon. Its architectural and sculptural choices are important. From a basic quadrangular plan, it changes in the centre into an octagon covered with a complex star-shaped vaulted ceiling which functions as a truly splendid canopy for King João I and Queen Filipa de Lencastre, who lie within a grandiose arched tomb.

On the lid of what is the largest 15th century gothic sarcophagus in Portugal are sculpted the royal couple in repose, holding hands, covered by baldachins with their coat of arms; on the trim, between branches and leaves, their mottos “Y me plet” and “por bem”; on the front two long inscriptions in Latin that summarise their merits and achievements; on the headpiece the cross of the Order of Jarreteira (which King João received) with the inscription “hinny soit qui mal y pense”.

At the far wall on the south side, are the tombs, from the second quarter of the 15th century of the children of the royal couple, the ‘illustrious generation’ as Camões called them. From right to left: the tomb of the Infante and Regent Pedro and his wife Isabel de Urgel, duchess of Coimbra; Henry the Navigator and Master of the Order of Christ (with its own statue in repose); the Infante João, master of the Order of Santiago and his wife Isabel; Fernando, master of the Order of Avis, who died in captivity in Fez and became known as the Holy or Saintly Prince.

The three tombs found on the eastern side of the Chapel are from the beginning of the 20th century, commissioned by King Carlos I. Here are buried, from left to right: King Afonso V, grandson of João I; King João II, son of Afonso V; and finally the prince and heir to the throne Afonso, son of João II, who died suddenly in 1491 in a horse-riding accident in the region of Santarém.



Photos – Obscurena/Paulo Janela