I remember the first time we met. It was a cold and sunny winter day during the Christmas holidays. I took the first bus from Lisbon to Batalha, having no idea I was going to forever fall in love with Batalha’s Monastery.
It was my third year attending the Tourist Guiding degree, and I had a paper to deliver in a couple of weeks about a place I had never been to. I studied everything I could find about it, I wrote the paper, but…I wanted to deliver this History of Art paper in the form of a “Guided Tour” to this beautiful medieval monastery – therefore, field work had to be done! I wanted to know how to move in the monastery, which path or steps to take, which would be the best perspectives to show its details to my future travelers.
What I found in Batalha was way beyond my expectations. When approaching the town, I was able to spot the gothic needles at a distance. The bus stopped and the vivid yellowish shades of the white limestone, aged by 600 years of exposure to the sun, rain and human presence around it, shone under the sunlight, attractive as can be.
In 1385, Portugal acclaimed a new king, John I, after two years of conflicts with neighboring Castile, one of the kingdoms that was yet to unify with others, becoming one day part of unified Spain. During the two-year long conflict, Portugal was helped by our oldest ally in history: England, with whom we have reinforced ties along the centuries. This time, the alliance was strengthened by the wedding of Phillipa of Lancaster, a granddaughter of Edward III, to John I. She was 27 – quite an old age to be getting married at in the middle ages! Having learned several languages, geography and other sciences, not only she still delivered eight children, six of which survived, but she also taught them as much as possible. Their most famous son was Henry the Navigator, and we find can his tomb, his parents’ and some of his brothers’ in the amazing Founder’s Chapel, topped by a star vaulted dome, sculpted as a stunning limestone embroidery.
John I built Batalha’s Monastery following up on a vow made right before the battle of Aljubarrota: if the Portuguese won, we would have built a monastery dedicated to Our Lady of Victory. This battle was not the last, but it was a very decisive one for the maintenance of our independence, and this construction is a celebration and an act of gratefulness for it.
This Monastery was a true working site for over a hundred years, sponsored by several generations of kings, where extraordinary quantities of materials were used and so many men came to learn and to teach others, experimenting several construction techniques. A great architecture and sculpture school, its flamboyant gothic style partially blends with the first experiments of the Portuguese Manueline style. Come discover this UNESCO site, which holds the oldest known stained-glass windows in Portugal, the tomb of our unknown soldiers, fantastic gargoyles and the most famous unfinished chapels in the country, whose limit is the sky. All of this awaits you on your next visit to Portugal!
One of my favorite details is a sculpted depiction of the Annunciation – a pregnant Virgin Mary, hand in her belly, a vase in the other, and a necklace full of tiny little hands – the hand of Fátima, a protection amulet still very common in certain parts Portugal. Do you want to know more about it? Come with me on a tour and we will discover this place of wonder together!