Batalha Monastery – Part III


Although it could be considered simplistic, the study of architecture according to its styles, or based on the characteristic motifs on buildings of recognisable forms, does nonetheless serve a purpose as a way to understand them. The isolated study of forms has led us to conclude that the evolution of styles is cyclic, normally beginning with primitive or archaic forms before achieving a moment of harmony, frequently referred to as classic, and then coming to a head in a period of exuberant creativity, sometimes dramatic, singular and extravagant.

What remains for us to see at the Monastery of Batalha (since two 16th century cloisters and their annexes no longer exist) is predominantly gothic. In the church, the sacristy and the Royal Cloister, the first architect Afonso Domingues made use of a language which, within the gothic style, came to be known as radiant, coinciding with the classic moment of that period’s architectural development

With the arrival of Huguet, who would substitute Afonso Domingues up on the old master’s death, the repertory of flaming gothic architecture made a sudden appearance at Batalha, for the first time in Portugal. The word flaming derives from the Latin term flama, or ‘flame’ and gains its significance in final Gothic from its decorative and structural characteristics, such as the frequent appearance of the counter-curved arch resembling a flame. As this was also a moment where gothic art achieved a kind of international critical mass, flaming is also known as international gothic. Prevalent in the flaming gothic style and appearing constantly at Batalha is not only the counter-curved arch but also a more complex approach to certain structural elements such as the nervures of the vaults or the columns, normally grouped in pillars. Sliced transversally, the nervures have metamorphosed from a kind of square with ballooning corners, in the radiant, to a triangular form, in the flaming. The columns maintain the cylindrical shaft but their extremities are no longer round but faceted. On the capitals and endparts or keystones of the vaults, the plants, flowers and fruits which are the habitual decorative motifs no longer are built up in levels or slices but suddenly are full of energetic movement.  This style would be continued by Martim Vasques, who followed Architect Huguet.

In the middle of the 15th century, with the Cloister of King Afonso V, Fernão de Évora would inaugurate a transformation in the project which cannot be explained away solely by the cyclic theory of styles: the exuberance of the flaming would be juxtaposed with a dramatically unadorned style (with the exception of the keystones of the vaults), reminiscent of the Cistercian structures built before Batalha. It was Vergílio Correia who baptised this phenomenon with the name ‘linear gothic’. As in Cistercian monuments, the nervures are characterised by their quadrangular cross-section, with chamfered ridges that are frequently set into corbels.

In the last years of the 15th century and during the first two decades of the 16th, the so-called Manueline style would make its first appearance at Batalha and indeed Portugal, which, as the name suggests, corresponds to the reign of King Manuel I. The brilliant inventor of the architectural language this time became known for was the architect Mateus Fernandes. His work, visible in the crosspieces of the windows and in the stall of the Royal Cloister, as well as in the doorway of the Unfinished Chapels, is an explosion of exuberant imagery that is only tempered by the Cloister of Fernão de Évora. The architecture is suddenly treated as if it were a monumental sculpture. Nonetheless, the works of Mateus Fernandes are still noted for their rigorous geometric faithfulness to the traditional basic flaming style of Batalha. As a matter of fact, the geometric base was not only maintained but refined even further: the arches would reveal numerous intersections and planes, and the faceted shapes would bend in order to intersect at various points.

The Manueline style is considered a monument to final gothic, with specific national traits, as would also happen in neighbouring Spain with the ‘Plateresque’ style. Nonetheless, Manueline architecture (and Plateresque) contain the germ of modernity, in the sense that they belong to those cases which reveal the limitations of stylistic analysis, when it is automatically assumed a style’s final moments are symbolic of its decadence and extinction. On the other hand, while we are able to recognise a formal style of Manueline architecture, it is also the case that there is a world of difference between the work of Mateus Fernandes and, say, João de Castilho (who emerged from the Plateresque tradition), Boitaca or the Arruda brothers. This is why the work visible on the higher parts of the Unfinished Chapels, of unidentified origin, is so different from that on the great doorway of Mateus Fernandes.

By way of contrast, above that same doorway we see a Mannerist gallery, by architect Miguel de Arruda, who nevertheless made an effort to blend in with the Manueline structure around it. The long-vanished cloisters were also in the Mannerist style.


Photos – Obscurena/Paulo Janela


Batalha Monastery – Part II – The Church

The Church

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


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