On 22 October 1383, King Fernando I of Portugal died after a reign of sixteen years. His death effectively ended the House of Burgundy, which had ruled Portugal since the early twelfth century. The king had no male heir, just a daughter, Infanta Beatriz (1372-1408). She had been married off to King Juan of Castile, which would lead to a union between Portugal and Castile. With Portuguese independence under threat, Fernando’s half-brother João claimed the throne. He was the natural son of King Pedro I and Teresa Lourenço. João’s claim to the throne was supported by many of the nobles. Naturally, the Castilians were not pleased and invaded Portugal. The war ended on 14 August 1385 when an outnumbered Portuguese army led by the Constable Nuno Álvares Pereira decisively defeated a much larger Castilian force at Aljubarrota. To commemorate the victory, King João decided to order the construction of a large monastery, the Dominican abbey of Santa Maria da Vitória. It is usually called the Batalha monastery, batalha being the Portuguese word for battle.
Batalha monastery is a prime example of Portuguese gothic architecture. Construction started in 1386, just one year after the victory at Aljubarrota, which is some three kilometres south of the monastery. The monastery was never actually completed. This is demonstrated most of all by the so-called Capelas Imperfeitas – unfinished chapels -, an octagonal structure to the east of the church’s choir. I will discuss the Capelas in a minute.
King João I of Portugal (1385-1433) was the first king from the House of Aviz (1385-1580). His successors Duarte I (1433-1438), Afonso V (1438-1481), João II (1481-1495) and Manuel I (1495-1521) all worked on the monastery, until Manuel decided to shift his priorities to other projects in 1501, when he ordered the construction of the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon. Work on the Batalha complex was probably discontinued completely during João III’s reign (1521-1557). Many architects have worked on the complex. Among the most important were Afonso Domingues and Huguet, the first and second architects of Batalha. Other architects were Fernão de Évora, Mateus Fernandes – whose tomb is near the entrance of the church – and Diogo de Boitaca.
The 1755 earthquake did not cause any serious damage, but André Masséna’s French troops looted and burned the complex in 1810. When the religious orders, including the Dominican order, were disbanded in 1834, the monastery was essentially a ruin. Restoration started a few years later and the complex was declared a national monument at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is now also a UNESCO World Heritage site, just like Alcobaça and Tomar.
The portal of the main entrance is worth examining in detail. To the left and right of the door are (copies of) statues of the apostles. Note that the apostle Saint Bartholomew, whose right hand is missing, is holding a chained devil or monster of some sort. The tympanum above the entrance is an impressive piece of sculpture, although it is hard to say whether it is original or not. It shows Christ the King sitting on his throne, with a model of the Batalha complex above him. On both sides of the throne are the four Evangelists, each with his own symbol. These are (clockwise): a man for Matthew, a lion for Mark, a bull for Luke and an eagle for John. We actually see both the evangelist ánd his personal symbol, unlike in Roman churches, where only the symbols are used most of the time (cf. Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santa Prassede, San Marco and Santa Pudenziana).
The nave bears a lot of resemblance to the church at Alcobaça. It is narrow and high and the visitor easily feels tiny. Just like at Alcobaça, there is little to no decoration.
Immediately to the right is the Capela do Fundador, which is Portuguese for the Founders’ Chapel. King João I ordered its construction during his lifetime and it was completed about a year after his death in 1433. While many of the kings from the House of Burgundy were buried at Alcobaça, and some – like João’s half-brother King Fernando I – in Santarém, João intended this chapel to become the new Royal Pantheon.
The joint tomb of the king and his English wife Philippa of Lancaster (1360-1415), is at the centre of the chapel, under the octagonal vault. Note that the king and queen are holding hands, both a symbol of their love for each other and of the excellent relations between Portugal and England. João and Philippa lie in full regalia under wonderfully decorated baldachins. Their mottos are carved on the tomb, Por bem (“for the good”) for the king and Yl me plet (“it pleases me”) for the queen, who was the granddaughter of King Edward III of England.
The southern wall contains the tombs of the couple’s sons. Their most famous son was Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), Grand Master of the Order of Christ in Tomar, who encouraged naval exploration and led his country into the Age of Discoveries. Henry’s tomb actually has an effigy of the deceased, the three others do not. In the western wall are copies of the tombs of the kings Afonso V and João II. The original tombs were desecrated and damaged by Masséna’s soldiers.
João’s firstborn son and successor Duarte (“Edward”) was not buried in the Capela do Fundador. His grave can be found in the Capelas Imperfeitas east of the choir, where he is buried in a joint tomb with his wife Eleanor of Aragon (1402-1445). To reach the Capelas, one must exit the complex, follow the signs and enter again through a separate entrance. Duarte’s tomb is much simpler and more plain than that of his father. There is little decoration and baldachins are absent. The king and his wife are clasping hands, and while Eleanor has her hand on a Bible, Duarte is holding his sword. The couple are apparently the only royals buried here, although the king clearly intended the Capelas to become a second Royal Pantheon in the complex.
It is not hard to imagine why the capelas – there are seven of them – are called unfinished. There is no roof or vault, if you look up, so can see a clear blue sky (it was a bit overcast when I visited the complex in August 2015, so the sky was actually grey). The visitor will also notice the immense unfinished buttresses that were intended to support the vault. One enters the capelas through a beautifully decorated portal carved in Manueline style by Mateus Fernandes.
Chapterhouse and cloisters
The chapterhouse contains the tombs of two unknown soldiers from World War I. Two cloisters are part of the complex. The Claustro Real is the most interesting of the two. Fernão de Évora was responsible for its construction and it was built in the second half of the fifteenth century. Manueline style decorations were added later by Mateus Fernandes. The second cloister is known as King Afonso’s cloister and was also the work of Fernão de Évora. It was built in a simple Gothic style and is much more sober than the Claustro Real. Yet the atmosphere here is peaceful and serene, and therefore a visit to this part of the complex is definitely recommended.