When one enters the Church of Santa Maria da Vitória through the main door, one cannot but be impressed by the majesty and grandiosity of the church’s interior. The grandiosity (more than 80 metres in length, by 22 metres in width and 32.5 metres in height) is understandable, as the church is the realisation of an ambitious project by King João I: a monumental programme that was much more of an expression of his power and an affirmation of the Monastery as a royal pantheon than a mere monastic vocation called for, particularly as the Dominican community in Portugal did not have the numbers to justify the scale of the construction.
The church was organised into three naves, with two side naves that are narrower and lower than the central nave. The naves lead to the transept, where, in the centre of the crossing, one finds a modern high altar before the chancel proper. The chancel is made up of five polygonal chapels, whereby the central chapel is higher and deeper than the four side chapels. The elevation of the High Altar over two storeys, with tall lanciform windows filled with stained glass panels, the oldest of which date from the early 16th century, represents an innovation in Portuguese Gothic architecture. Together with the great height of the High Altar, which is equal to that of the central nave, this solution serves to project the latter, with the apse serving as a luminous and transparent finishing.
The vaulted ceilings in the central and side naves feature ogival ribs and sculpted chains and have large ornamental keystones with botanic themes of a highly natural aspect, leading one to believe that the master builder Huguet was responsible for completing the ceiling.
The side door, which has four ogival archivolts, was designed by Afonso Domingues, who used what was then becoming a somewhat archaic language in the decorative elements of the archivolts and in the definition of the pointed gable. What was new about the door was its positioning, in relation to the field defined by the gable, of the expressively sculpted coats of arms of the Monastery’s founders.
Photos – Obscurena/Paulo Janela