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The Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitória, better known as Batalha (Battle Abbey), is the supreme achievement of Portuguese architecture – the dazzling richness and originality of its Manueline decoration rivalled only by the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at Belém. An exuberant symbol of national pride, it was built to commemorate the battle that sealed Portugal’s independence after decades of Spanish intrigue.
With the death of Dom Fernando in 1383, the royal house of Burgundy died out, and there followed a period of feverish factional plotting over the Portuguese throne. Fernando’s widow, Leonor Teles, had a Spanish lover even during her husband’s lifetime and, when Fernando died, she betrothed her daughter, Beatriz, to Juan I of Castile, encouraging his claim to the Portuguese throne. João, Mestre de Aviz, Fernando’s illegitimate stepbrother, also claimed the throne. He assassinated Leonor’s lover and braced himself for the inevitable invasion from Spain. The two armies clashed on August 14, 1385, at the Battle of Aljubarrota, which despite its name was actually fought at São Jorge, 4km south of present-day Batalha (where there’s now a battle interpretation centre). Faced with seemingly impossible odds, João struck a deal with the Virgin Mary, promising to build a magnificent abbey in return for her military assistance. It worked: Nuno Álvares Pereira led the Portuguese forces to a memorable victory and the new king duly summoned the finest architects of the day.Read More
The honey-coloured Abbey was transformed by the uniquely Portuguese Manueline additions of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, but the bulk of the building was actually completed between 1388 and 1434 in a profusely ornate version of French Gothic. Within this flamboyant framework there are also strong elements of the English Perpendicular style, and both nave and chapterhouse are reminiscent of church architecture in the English cathedral cities of Winchester and York.
Capela do Fundador
Medieval architects were frequently attracted by lucrative foreign commissions, but there is a special explanation for the English influence at Batalha. This is revealed in the Capela do Fundador (Founder’s Chapel), directly to the right upon entering the church. Beneath the octagonal lantern rests the joint tomb of Dom João I and Philippa of Lancaster, their hands clasped in the ultimate expression of harmonious relations between Portugal and England.
A crack contingent of English longbowmen had played a significant role in the victory at Aljubarrota and in 1386 both countries signed the Treaty of Windsor, “an inviolable, eternal, solid, perpetual and true league of friendship”. As part of the same political package Dom João married Philippa, John of Gaunt’s daughter, and with her came English architects to assist at Batalha. The alliance between the two countries has subsequently become the longest-standing international friendship of modern times.
The four younger sons of João and Philippa are buried along the south wall of the Capela do Fundador in a row of recessed arches, including (second from the right) the tomb of Prince Henry the Navigator, who guided the discovery of Madeira, the Azores and the African coast as far as Sierra Leone. Concerted maritime exploration accelerated with the accession of Manuel I (1495–1521), and this momentous era of burgeoning self-confidence and wealth is reflected in the peculiarly Portuguese style of architecture known (after the king) as Manueline. As befitted the great national shrine, Batalha was adapted to incorporate two masterpieces of the new order: the Claustro Real and the Capelas Imperfeitas.
Claustro Real and Sala do Capítulo
In the Claustro Real (Royal Cloister), stone grilles of ineffable beauty and intricacy were added to the original Gothic windows by Diogo de Boitaca, architect of the cloister at Belém and the prime genius of Manueline art. Crosses of the Order of Christ and armillary spheres – symbols of overseas exploration – are entwined in a network of lotus blossom, briar branches and exotic vegetation.
Off the east side opens the early fifteenth-century Sala do Capítulo (chapterhouse), remarkable for the audacious unsupported span of its ceiling – so daring, in fact, that the Church authorities were convinced the whole chamber would come crashing down and employed condemned criminals to build it. The architect, Afonso Domingues, only finally silenced his critics by sleeping in the chamber night after night. Soldiers now stand guard here over Portugal’s Tomb of the Unknown Warriors, one killed in France during World War I, the other in the country’s colonial wars in Africa. The refectory, on the opposite side of the cloister, houses a military museum in their honour. From here, a short passage leads into the Claustro de Dom Afonso V, built in a conventional Gothic style, which provides a yardstick against which to measure the Manueline flamboyance of the Royal Cloister.
The Capelas Imperfeitas (Unfinished Chapels) form a separate structure tacked on to the east end of the church and accessible only from outside the main complex. Dom Duarte, eldest son of João and Philippa, commissioned them in 1437 as a royal mausoleum but the original design was transformed beyond all recognition by Dom Manuel’s architects. Every centimetre is carved with a honeycomb of mouldings: florid projections, linked chains, clover-shaped arches, strange vegetables and even crawling stone snails. The place is unique among Christian architecture and evocative of the great shrines of Islam and Hinduism: perhaps it was inspired by the tales of Indian monuments that filtered back along the eastern trade routes.
Within the chapel portal, a large octagonal space is surrounded by seven hexagonal chapels, two of which contain the sepulchres of Dom Duarte and his queen, Leonor of Aragon. An ambitious upper storey – equal in magnificence to the portal – was planned, but the huge buttresses were abandoned a few years later in 1533.