The great Dominican monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória in the small town of Batalha, central Portugal, isn’t just a national shrine but one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Europe.
Rising high from the valley floor, the monument is a riot of pinnacles, gargoyles, rose windows, buttresses and balustrades wrought in a fine, smooth limestone that time has mellowed to a honey-coloured gold that looks particularly striking at sunset.
It was built in fulfilment of a vow made by King João I on the eve of the famous Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, during which a united front of Portuguese and English forces led by Nuno Álvares Pereira defeated the army of Juan, King of Castile, to secure Portugal’s independence.
The main part of this magnificent building was constructed between 1388 and 1433, with work mostly consisting of the church itself (finished in 1416), royal cloister, Chapter House and Founder’s Chapel.
The original architect was Afonso Domingues who worked on the project from 1388 until 1402. He drew up plans very similar to those of the Santa Maria Monastery in nearby Alcobaça and constructed the choir and side doorway prior to his successor David Huguet (also written Houet and Ouguête) taking charge from 1402 to 1438.
Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, the monastery was finally completed during the reign of King Duarte I, with subsequent monarchs Afonso V and Manuel I respectively adding more cloisters and a lavish array of Manueline ornamentation.
Most impressive is the main door surrounded by more than 100 statues depicting Christ, the apostles, numerous Saints, the Evangelists, prophets, angels and various other biblical figures.
80 metres long and 32.5 metres high, the interior of the church is well punctuated with elevated stained-glass windows, some of which are very old, particularly those in the choir.
To the right of the entrance is the Founder’s Chapel, which was built as the resting place of King João I and his English queen, Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt. They lie hand-in-hand on a high Gothic sarcophagus with the tombs of their equally extraordinary sons set around them, including Prince Henry the Navigator.
To the left of the nave is the Royal Cloister, a marvellous combination of Gothic arches and richly-carved Manueline decoration, and beyond it the more sober but equally elegant Gothic cloister of King Afonso V.
Close by, and very much the magnum opus of the monastery, is the pillar-less, square-shaped, 19-metre-high Chapter House where two unknown Portuguese soldiers lie beneath the glow of an eternal flame and guarded by a sentinel. One fell in Flanders and the other in Africa.
Behind the chancel stand the seven Capelas Imperfeitas (Unfinished Chapels) surrounding a large octagonal space with a stunning coral-stone entrance. Roofless and open to the sky, the chapels were begun in 1435 by King Duarte I who died three years later and despite the valiant efforts of King Manuel I, they remain incomplete to this day, hence the name.
Visitors to Batalha might also be interested in visiting the little chapel of São Jorge just 5 km south-west of the monastery where Nuno Álvares Pereira commanded his forces against the Castilians.