In 1383 King Fernando I of Portugal died without a male heir, leaving the door open for the King of Castile to sieze the Portuguese throne. However, only two years later the Portuguese throne was safe and plans for a monastery at Batalha were begun, in celebration of the decisive battle where Fernando’s illegitimate half-brother defeated the Castilian army and ensured that Portugal would remain independent for almost two hundred years.
At the time of Fernando’s death his daughter, Beatriz, was married to King Juan I of Castile and after Fernando’s death she was named Queen of Portugal, but many Portuguese people were not happy with the situation as they feared the Castilians would take control of their country. Juan proved them right by entering Portugal with an army and marching towards Lisbon. Opponents of Beatriz began to support the illegitimate son of King Pedro I, João (1357-1433), who formed an army led by the great military commander Nuno Álvares Pereira to fight against the Castilians. The two armies met on 14th August 1385 on a battlefield at São Jorge on the outskirts of Aljubarrota and the Castilians were defeated at what became known as the Battle of Aljubarrota. João was proclaimed King João I of Portugal and began plans to build a monastery at Batalha to fulfil a promise that he had made in 1385 during the Battle of Aljubarrota, in which he vowed that if the Portuguese troops defeated the Castilians he would build a monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary of the Victory (Santa Maria da Vitória). (Outside the monastery, opposite the main portal, is a large statue honouring the real hero of the Battle of Aljubarrota, Nuno Álvares Pereira, sitting proudly on his horse with his sword at his side.) The town of Batalha (which means ‘battle’ in Portuguese) was founded at the same time.
The Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória at Batalha is one of the best examples of Gothic and Manueline architecture in Portugal and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. The exterior of the Dominican monastery is of a light gold limestone decorated with spires, gables and ornamental crenellations that overwhelm the eye. It was begun in 1386 by the architect Afonso Domingues, who designed the Gothic arches in the Royal Cloister (to which the Manueline decorations of ropes, exotic flowers and crosses of the Order of Christ were added later by Diogo de Boitaca, who also decorated the cloister at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém) and the nave of the church.
The more flamboyant elements of the church were added by the architect Huguet, who took over from Domingues in 1402, including the high ceilings and the intricate late-Gothic-style main portal, which includes statues of the apostles on either side, God on his throne above the entrance and at the very top a depiction of the crowning of the Virgin Mary.
Huguet was also responsible for the Founder’s Chapel (which João ordered to be built as a royal pantheon for the House of Aviz and in which are the tombs of João and his wife, Queen Philippa of Lancaster (1360-1415), in the centre of the chapel, placed side by side holding hands, and the tombs of their four younger sons, in niches, including Prince Henrique (1394-1460, better known in English as Henry the Navigator, the man behind Portuguese exploration in the first half of the 15th century). Above the tombs of João and Philippa is a delicate octagonal lantern ceiling, with coloured-light-reflecting stained-glass windows, which acts as a symbolic canopy over them.
The church was one of the first churches in Portugal to have stained-glass windows as part of its design and it became a centre of stained-glass production throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, however, very little remains of the original stained glass that was put in in the mid-15th century. The two main artists responsible for the original stained glass were Luís Alemão and Francisco Henriques, who was the court painter to King Manuel. There was a major restoration of the building carried out in the 19th century and most of the stained glass was replaced by Mouzinho de Albuquerque during this time and since then further restoration work has been carried out by the National School of Arts and Crafts of Batalha. Through this programme the monastery has been able to preserve what UNESCO refers to as its authenticity.
Huguet was also commissioned to build a royal mausoleum, separate from the main church, by King Duarte (1391-1438, João and Philippa’s eldest son) in 1434, but it was never completed, as his grandson King Manuel I (1469-1521) moved the royal pantheon to the Jerónimos Monastery in the early-1500s. As a result, the seven chapels in the open-roofed octagonal space are known as the Unfinished Chapels. They house the tombs of King Duarte and his wife, Queen Leonor of Aragon (1402-1445). Work on the Unfinished Chapels was taken over by the Manueline architect Mateus Fernandes at the beginning of the 16th century and the space is most notable for his 15-metre high portal with Manueline motifs dating from 1509. The portal is topped by an Italianate Renaissance balcony added in 1533 by Miguel de Arruda.
Huguet’s other great achievement in the monastery is the audacious unsupported ceiling in the Chapterhouse, of which there are several legends, including one that says that the original ceiling, designed by Afonso Domingues, collapsed twice killing many people, so it was finally rebuilt based on a design by Huguet and prisoners were used to do the work with the promise that they could go free if it didn’t collapse. Another version of this story is that Huguet had to sleep in the Chapterhouse under the ceiling for several nights to prove that it wouldn’t collapse. The Chapterhouse nowadays houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb contains the bodies of two soldiers from the First World War, which are guarded by two soldiers and watched over by the Christ of the Trenches crucifix, on which Christ has lost a hand and the bottom half of both legs. The symbolic importance of this crucifix to Portuguese soldiers dates back to the First World War as it is all that remains of the crucifix from a church in Neuve-Chapelle which was destroyed in a battle of 1918 and it was later donated to Portugal by the French government in recognition of the Portuguese soldiers’ bravery during this battle. The only other object in this vast room is the Flame of the Nation sculpture, designed by António Gonçalves and forged in iron by Lourenço Chaves de Almeida in 1924, depicting three soldiers from different eras of warfare (one with a spear, one with a sword and one with a bayonet) and with an eternal flame burning at the top.
The former refectory which is just off the cloister is now used as a small military museum and outside the refectory is an ornate fountain dating from 1450 where the monks would wash their hands before eating.
Due to the careful conservation and restoration programmes, the monastery has retained most of the original features from its original inception, when King João I made his promise to the Virgin Mary. I think he would be pleased.
Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória, Largo de Santa Maria da Vitória, Batalha
16th October to 31st March 9am-5.30pm; 1st April to 15th October 9am-6.30pm (closed 1st January, Easter Sunday, 1st May, 25th December)
Bus: the Rodoviária do Lis interurban bus service runs between Batalha, Figueira da Foz, Leiria, Marinha Grande, Ourém, Pombal and Porto de Mós, but be warned that we tried to travel to Batalha from Leiria by bus at the most disorganized bus station I have ever encountered. Giving up on getting any useful information from the bus station staff, we finally decided to cut our losses and take a taxi.
Bus fare from Leiria to Batalha €2.15
Taxi from Leiria to Batalha €14 and from Alcobaça to Batalha €21