Founded by the first Portuguese king in 1153, the Cistercian Alcobaça Monastery (Portuguese: Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça) was one of the richest and most prestigious monasteries in medieval Europe. Its church was the first building in Portugal to adopt the Gothic style and was (and still is!) the largest church in the country.
History of Alcobaça Monastery
In March 1147, facing the Moors in an important battle at Santarém, Afonso Henríques vowed that he would build a great monastery if God granted him victory. After winning the battle and becoming the first Portuguese king, Afonso kept his promise. He founded the Monastery of St. Mary at Alçobaca in 1153 and gave it to Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian abbot who had strongly promoted the Crusades.
St. Bernard died later that year and monks of his order soon came to Alçobaca. The Cistercian monks lived in simple wooden houses for several decades while they waited for the monastery to be constructed. Building work began in 1178; they were able to occupy the monastery buildings in 1223.
The architects are unknown, but were likely of French origin and based their design on the Abbey of Clairvaux, founded by St. Bernard in 1115. That abbey has not survived, making Alcobaça Monastery an important witness to early Cistercian architecture. When the church was completed in 1252, it was the first fully Gothic building and the largest church of any style in Portugal. In the late 13th century, King Dinis I added the Gothic cloister, poetically known as the Cloister of Silence.
Over the centuries, the monks of Alcobaca made significant contributions to Portuguese culture. In 1269 they were the first to give public lessons to their flock and later they produced the authoritative history on Portugal in a series of books. The library at Alcobaça was one of the largest in Portugal. Many Portuguese monarchs were buried in Alcobaça Monastery in the 13th and 14th centuries, including Afonso II, Afonso III, and their queens, as well as King Pedro I and his ill-fated mistress, Inês de Castro.
During the reign of Manuel I, a second floor was added to the cloister and a new sacristy was built in the richly ornamental Manueline style. The monastery was further enlarged in the 18th century with the addition of a new cloister and new church towers. The monastery escaped major damage in the great 1755 earthquake. In 1794, Lord Beckford visited and commented that he found some 300 monks "living in a very splendid manner!" But monastic life at Alcobaca was soon to end.
In 1810, invading French troops looted the famous library, robbed the tombs, and stole and burnt part of the inner decoration of the church. Whatever items still remaining were then later stolen in 1834 during an anti-clerical riot that accompanied the official dissolution of monastic life in Portugal and the departure of the last monks from Alcobaca.
Alcobaca Monastery was designated a World Heritage Site in 1989 because "its size, the purity of its architectural style, the beauty of the materials and the care with which it was built make this a masterpiece of Cistercian Gothic art."
What to See at Alcobaça Monastery
The west façade of the monastery church is the majestic Cistercian Gothic style with later Baroque embellishments. The portal and rose window are part of the original Gothic church (1178-1252), while the statues and two flanking towers were added in the beginning of the 18th century by architect João Turriano. The long wings attached to the church on either side are also Baroque additions. In the back of the church is a Gothic apse with eight flying buttresses.
Stretching 327 feet (106m) in length, the interior of the church is an exquisite example of Cistercian Gothic architecture. In accordance with austere Cistercian principles, decoration is minimal, allowing maximum appreciation of the soaring vertical lines. The side aisles are as tall as the central nave (20m). The ribbed vaults are supported on transverse arches and large pillars with engaged columns. The apse, flooded with light from large Gothic windows, has an ambulatory with radiating chapels.
From the ambulatory a corridor leads to the sacristy, built in the Manueline style in the early 16th century and rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake. The corridor survived the earthquake; it has a splendid lierne vault and a richly ornamented Manueline portal with the Portuguese coat of arms.
In the transept of the church is one of the monastery's star attractions: the Gothic royal tombs of star-crossed lovers King Pedro I (1320-67) and Inês de Castro (1325-55). They met when Pedro was forced to marry the young Constanza of Castille in 1339; her lady-in-waiting was Inês, daughter of a Castilian aristocrat. Pedro fell in love with Inês and took her as his mistress. After Constanza died in 1349, Pedro refused to remarry and continued to be devoted to Inês, with whom he had several children.
Pedro recognized all his children with Inês and favored the Castilians at court, leading Pedro's father, King Afonso IV, to regard her as a threat to his kingdom. So in 1355, the king had her murdered. Two years later, Afonso IV died and Pedro became king. King Pedro I immediately declared that he had married Inês in a secret ceremony in Bragança, making her the rightful queen. According to legend, the bereaved king then took his gruesome revenge - he exhumed Inês' body, presented the corpse at court and ordered all his courtiers to pay homage to her decomposed hand.
King Pedro commissioned marble tombs for himself and his beloved, facing each other so that on Judgment Day their first sight will be of each other. Though damaged, their sarcophagi are the greatest pieces of sculpture from 14th-century Portugal. Both tombs have effigies of the deceased assisted by angels. The sides of Pedro's tomb are decorated with episodes from the life of St. Bartholomew and scenes from his life with Inês, including a promise that they will be together até ao fim do mundo (until the end of the world). Her tomb is decorated with scenes from the life of Christ and the Last Judgment.
Connected to the right arm of the transept is the Royal Pantheon, which was destroyed in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and rebuilt soon after in a Neo-Gothic style. It contains the 13th-century tombs of Queen Urraca of Castile (d.1220; wife of King Afonso II) and Queen Beatrix of Castile (d.1303; wife of Afonso III). The most remarkable tomb is that of Queen Urraca, which is richly decorated with Late Romanesque reliefs of the royal family, apostles, and Christ within a mandorla.
The beautiful Gothic Cloisters of Silence were built during the reign of King Dinis I in the late 13th century. The builders were Portuguese architects Domingo Domingues and Master Diogo. The Fountain Hall in the cloisters contains an elegant Early Renaissance fountain. The second story was added in the early 16th century in the Manueline style.
The chapter house, connected to the cloister by a Romanesque-style portal, is filled with Baroque statues created by the monks. Visitors can also explore the monks' dormitory and the scriptorium where they copied manuscripts.
The monastic kitchen is an impressive and interesting sight. The Cistercian monks, known for their engineering abilities, diverted a branch of the Alcoa River right through the kitchen, providing clean running water (and convenient fishing). The kitchen has a massive chimney - it was said eight oxen could be simulataneously spit-roasted there. The kitchen is matched by spacious refectory.
The remnants of the monastery library, including hundreds of medieval manuscripts, are now kept in the National Library in Lisbon.
Quick Facts on Alcobaça Monastery
|Names:||Alcobaça Monastery · Alcobaça Monastery · Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça|
|Categories:||monasteries; World Heritage Sites|
|Faiths:||Catholicism; Cistercian order|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||39.548199° N, 8.979596° W|
|Address:||516 Mosteiro Alcobaça|
|Hours:||Apr-Sep: daily 9am-7pm|
Oct-Mar: daily 9am-5pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near Alcobaça Monastery|
- Mosteiro de Santa Maria - Frommer's Portugal, 20th ed.
- Alcobaça Monastery - Wikipedia
- Alcobaca: Another Cistercian Masterpiece - Bellatrovata
- Monastery of Alcobaça - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Photos of Alcobaça Monastery - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Alcobaça Monastery
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