Batalha Monastery: Symbol of Portugal's Independence

Portugal has a long history as an independent nation, dating back to the early twelfth century. In 1128, after the battle of Guimaraes, Count Alfonso Henríquez separated the Portuguese nation from Galicia and was named king of Portugal by the courts gathered in Lamego. It was a time of violent political upheavals and frequent changes of borders, motivated mainly by the advance of the Christian kingdoms towards the south of the Iberian Peninsula, within the reconquest of the territories occupied by the Arabs at the end of the 8th century.

Facade of Batalha Monastery

There were also clashes between the Christian kingdoms and feudal lords themselves, in a historical process of definition of powers and states that would not come to an end until the end of the 15th century. Portugal knew a key moment at the death of Ferdinand I, in 1383. The only heir was his daughter Beatriz, married to Juan Trastámara, King of Castile. The fear of losing the independence obtained spread in the Portuguese court, since the legal heirs of the kingdom were none other than the infants from the marriage between Beatriz and the Castilian king who, when the legal age to assume the Portuguese throne arrived, would not hesitate to annex the Portuguese lands to the kingdom of Castile. 

Faced with this situation, Juan Maestre de Avis, bastard son of King Pedro I who preceded Ferdinand on the throne of Lisbon, took the initiative. The nobles of the court promised him their support, while Nuno Álvarez Pereira undertook to take command of his armies. Avis receives the essential legal justification for his aspirations from the Cortes of Coimbra, where Juan de las Regras defends his cause and Portuguese independence with singular eloquence. Before starting the military campaign that would allow him to ascend to the Portuguese throne, Juan Maestre de Avis makes a promise: if fortune is favorable to him, he will build an imposing monastery in Batalha to commemorate the event.

The Castilian king, unwilling to cede the rights of his sons without combat, gathered an army that, according to the chronicles, was notably superior to the Portuguese. The confrontation between Juan Maestre de Avis and Juan I Trastámara took place on August 15, 1385, in Alfarrobeira, and the arms were in favor of the Portuguese. The chronicles of Chancellor Ayala, who accompanied the Castilian king, and the Frenchman Froissart, gave an account of the magnitude of the battle and the losses of the Castilian army. King Juan I himself lamented the defeat for years, as evidenced by the writings he addressed to the Pope of Avignon, Clement VII, and the orders he issued on his return to Spain, which decreed mourning at the Court for a year and a half, as well as the prohibition of theatrical performances and popular festivals throughout the Kingdom for a year.

John I of Portugal a.k.a Juan Maestre de Avis (1357-1433)

The people of Castile were not excessively saddened by the defeat, which they considered a matter of exclusive concern to the king and his family. On the contrary, John I's loss provoked some joy among the last "peregileros", the supporters of the Castilian king Peter I, who had lost his life on the throne he rightfully occupied at the hands of his bastard brother Henry II, father of the now defeated king. In a way, history had repeated itself, but with opposite fortune for the son of the usurper, who now saw how the legitimate patrimony of his children fell under the authority of John I of Avis, despite the fact that he was not the legal heir. The independence of Portugal was told.

Batalha, Cistercian Monastery.

John I of Avis kept his promise, laid the first stone in Batalha in memory of Alfarrobeira, which henceforth became a symbol of Portuguese autonomy. It belongs in essence to the great family of European Cistercian monasteries, although later modifications and extensions have contributed significant elements from other artistic fields. The architecture of the Cistercians was an affective link between Romanesque and Gothic, being one of the few milestones in the history of art with a known author and date: in 1119, St. Bernard drew up a reform of the Order of St. Benedict by which he proscribed the decorative excesses of Burgundy, ordering a return to sobriety and simplicity of ornamentation. The reform spread rapidly, and the architects soon accepted the ribbed vault, which the Cistercians would bequeath to the Gothic as an inheritance. 

The Royal Cloister

Batalha, like the Portuguese monastery, adopted this type of architecture, probably because of the great prestige of the Cistercian motherhouses at that time. The works were undertaken by the Portuguese architect Alfonso Domingues, assisted by a certain master Huguet, whose biography remains obscure, although he is supposed to be of English nationality. The three longitudinal naves of the monastery of Batalha end in the transept nave, to which five chapels open, of which the central one is deeper than the lateral ones. At a height of more than 32 m, a ribbed vault covers the whole. Inside the nave and at the foot of the epistle, a small chapel is attached, with a square floor plan of 19.8 m on each side, covered by a beautiful star-shaped vault supported by eight pillars. This beautiful dependency receives the name of the Founder's Chapel, and encloses a high sarcophagus where the remains of Don Juan and his wife, the queen Doña Filipa rest. Around it are the tombs of his sons Fernando; Juan, Grand Master of the Order of Santiago; Pedro, Duke of Coimbra, and the Infante Henry the Navigator, who founded the first Naval School in the world, opening the way for Portugal's transoceanic explorations.

Another view of the facade

From the same period date the Royal Cloister, of Gothic plan although modified later by Manueline elements and endowed with a precious stone lace that contributes to creating games of lights and shades, and the Chapter House. The latter has a square floor plan of 19 m on each side and is covered by a delicate ribbed star, a magnificent example of the marriage between constructive solidity and decoration integrated into the work of apparent fragility, which lends lightness to the whole.

Monastery of Four Kings.

The monastery was enriched by the Portuguese crown during the two centuries following its foundation. The works described by John I were followed by those of his son Edward I, who undertook the expansion of the choir and an octagonal rotunda attached to the main chapel of the monastery, in the direction of the major axis of the church. Seven funerary chapels open onto this rotunda, destined to Edward and his descendants. Death came to the monarch without seeing his work finished, which received the name of Capelas Imperfeitas ("unfinished chapels" in English.)

Manuel I the Fortunate (king from 1494 to 1521), after whom the Portuguese Gothic style par excellence, the Manueline, was named, resumed the works of Batalha. He built the vaults that cover the Capelas Imperfeitas, as well as the cover of the same attributed to the artist Mateus Fernandez the Elder. The predominant influence is late Castilian Gothic, that is, Elizabethan. This can be seen in the way the sides of the portal are staggered with vertical elements and in the refined carving of the stone. To these characteristics are added motifs of Arab decoration and the tendency to make profuse use of vegetal forms to the detriment of purely geometric forms. Manueline art is basically a synthesis between the Portuguese Gothic tradition, closely related to the verticalism developed in England, and the Islamic elements that proliferated in the country from the numerous contacts with the Muslim kingdoms of the south of the peninsula. Thus, the Manueline architectural plans do not differ substantially from the Gothic ones that had been produced a couple of centuries earlier. The same does not happen with the decoration, which tends to be overloaded, due to the large surface it occupies, its complexity and the variety of motifs. Among the latter, the predilection for maritime elements stands out: the net, swollen sails, navigational devices such as the armillary sphere. The royal emblem and the Cross of the Order of Christ are also frequently repeated. 

Founder's Chapel or Capela do Fundador

Manuel I also undertook the construction of a monumental hall and the great facade of Batalha. The most remarkable element of the façade is a large flamboyant window above the doorway, adorned with baquetons, a decorative scheme for stone that consists of carving the surface horizontally and vertically in such a way that the indentations give rise to a square grid. The decoration based on baquetons is scarce in southern Europe, therefore specialists believe it's another influence coming from English artists, explainable by the close political relationship that, from very early times and up to the present day, has managed to unite both nations. 

The works of Batalha ended with John III, who chose an artistic Luis as it closes with a flourish two centuries of work. The Batalha Monastery is one of the crowning works of the Portuguese Manueline style, while recalling the dignity of a people, Portugal, who did not want to lose their independence and identity.

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