Saturday, October 03, 2009

Portuguese monasteries

Beginning with the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Lisbon with its ornate stonework, I did the monastery circuit in Portugal—Batalha, Alcobaça, and Tomar. These towns host architecturally astonishing abbeys that are perhaps the most significant in the country.

The monastery at Batalha was built to commemorate Dom João’s victory in the 1385 Battle of Aljubarrota. The defeat of King Juan of Castile in a contest for the Portuguese throne was one of the most consequential battles in European history, given that it assured Portuguese independence prior to their initiation of Europe’s imperial expansion and colonisation across the globe, the so-called Age of Discovery, with Vasco da Gama’s establishment of a sea route to India. The elaborate architecture and sculpture of the convent at Batalha (which means “battle” in Portuguese) reflects the importance of this event.

At Alcobaça, the interior of the severe but grand Romanesque hall church contrasts its Manueline façade, while the gigantic kitchen of the abbey itself is indulgence manifest. The chimney is three storeys tall and is large enough at its base to envelop a car. A small tributary was dug from the nearby river and diverted through the kitchen to supply the monastery with fresh fish. Hardly a monks’ existence.

The massive, 12th-century Convento do Cristo in Tomar, the headquarters of the legendary Order of the Knights Templar, is the most atmospheric—and the largest. I spent four hours hurrying to see everything. The highlight is the staggering charola, or Round Church. An octagonal rotunda with a ceiling perhaps ten metres tall containing a central structure connected by arches—the high altar—is intricately decorated with sculptures and paintings. Legend has it that the knights attended mass here on horseback.

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