The Alcobaça Monastery was founded in 1153 by Dom Afonso Henriques (the first King of Portugal) as a gesture of piety, the keeping of an oath, and a smart political move.
This was the time of the Reconquista, the centuries-long effort by Christians to drive the Moors out of Iberia. In 1147, Dom Afonso was heading into battle to take the fortified town of Santarém with a force of just 120 men. He asked for divine intervention and promised that if he were victorious, he would commemorate the occasion with a gift of land to Bernard of Clairvaux (who became Saint Bernard), to be used to found a great abbey. Then he conquered Santarém in a nighttime attack, ordering his men to kill everyone inside the walls, including “the decrepit old women, the old man, even if he’s full of love,” and children, “even at the breast of the mother.” After the wholesale slaughter, he kept his word and gifted the land.
There was a shrewd political calculus behind the gift. Having taken the territory from the Moors, Afonso needed settlers. He needed villages and towns and people in the fields, and one proven method for building up an area was to build a grand religious center to attract the people. The location was prime property, at the confluence of two rivers: the Alcoa and the Baça, which gave their names to both the abbey and the city.
The monks initially lived in wooden houses; actual construction of the church and monastery didn’t begin until 1178, 25 years after the land gift. They were able to move into the new stone monastery buildings in 1223, and the church was finished in 1252. It was the largest church in Portugal, and elevated both the town and the Cisterian Order in national importance. (Eight hundred years later, it is still the largest church in Portugal.) The monks spent their time creating illuminated manuscripts, and the library at Alcobaça grew into one of the greatest libraries in medieval Portugal. Unfortunately, Napoleon’s army had no respect for the monastery, its royal tombs, or its library, and did tremendous damage during the French invasion in 1810. For the Portuguese, it was akin to the burning of the Library of Alexandria. (The same fate befell the monastery of Batalha, which suffered more damage at the hands of the French than it had from the Great Earthquake of 1755.)
The front façade of the monastery is, to my eyes, a little ungainly. The massive church stands at the center of two extremely long wings, and unless you stand at one end and shoot toward the other — or stitch together a panorama — it’s impossible to get the whole thing in one photograph. (In the photo above, you can see the entirety of one of the wings…so imagine the same length on the other side.) The dramatic height difference between church and wings screams “different architect, different time,” but even that wouldn’t be quite as jarring if the colors weren’t so different. The church’s façade seems in desperate need of a good cleaning and restoration.
But then you walk inside, and everything changes.
The first impression this church gives is one of light. It is glowing with it. It’s glorious, the most airy and light church I’ve ever seen.
The second impression is of height, an intentional design by the architect, who built three slender naves of near-equal height: over 20 meters, or 65 feet. Since the entire width of the church is only 17 meters (56 feet), while the length is a whopping 106 meters (348 feet), the overall feel is of an impossibly tall ceiling floating overhead, while your eye is drawn to the burst of light in the distant chancel.
In keeping with the austere aesthetics of the Cisterian Order, the church has almost no decoration on its walls, columns or ceiling. But there is one thing you can always find in these buildings, regardless of aesthetic: the various marks of the masons. Each had his own mark, which he carved into a block upon finishing it. You can see one such mark here, near the bottom center of the photo — it’s the symbol for Saturn, but upside down. A second, different mark is above and to the right, appearing as a backward Greek beta symbol.
If you’re having a hard time spotting them, here’s a cropped and zoomed version. I didn’t even notice the third symbol — another beta on the opposite side — until I cropped this photo just now.
Walking down the length of the nave brings the source of all that light into view: the clerestory windows of the chancel. They’re made possible by something I’d not seen before: a series of radial chapels behind the altar, which provide support for eight buttresses that in turn support the clerestory.
Here is a closer look:
Additional light is provided by rose windows at the front of the church and each end of the transept. One of the transept windows shines down upon the ornate tomb of Dom Pedro, who is the Romeo of one of Portugal’s greatest love stories. His Juliet, Inês de Castro, lies in an equally ornate tomb at the other end of the transept. Their story, and their tombs, require a separate post.
Tomorrow, we’ll head into the monastery.
(Click any image to embiggen.)