We’ve seen a lot of big buildings in Portugal so far and the Alcobaca Monastery was not to be outdone. There is a very special reason to visit this monastery, to see the royal tombs, but there is so much more to see that makes this worth a visit.
History of the Alcobaca Monastery
The Alcobaca Monastery was founded in 1153 by the first Portuguese King, King Alfonso the first. This was after he had made a vow to Saint Bernard after recovering the city and municipality of Santarem from the Moors in 1147.
Construction began 25 years later in 1178. The newly built monastery was finished in 1223 which was when the king gave both the monastery and the surrounding arable plots to the Cistercian monks. By then the monastery had become one of the richest and most powerful abbeys in Portugal. The church itself wasn’t completed until 1252. It is widely believed that 999 monks lived in the monastery in that time and that masses were constantly celebrated without a break. That must have been exhausting work, running such a huge order.
As you enter the church through the massive door the first thing that you notice at this masterpiece of Cistercian Gothic art is how austere it is. It is very plain and nearly completely unadorned, so very distinct to all of the other churches and cathedrals we have so far visited in Portugal (and Spain), such as the heavily decorated churches in Seville and Murcia.
There were a few niches that had some modest decoration or a small simple statue, but like most of the church, everything was pretty much unadorned.
We did, however, find the sacristy area and as normal this part of the church was very opulent and where the greatest of riches and art are kept and displayed. The sacristy is a room in a church where a priest prepares for a service, and where vestments and articles of worship are kept. No unadorned austere rooms for the head priest.
The Love Story of Pedro and Ines
Then we headed to the highlight of the Alcobaca Monastery, to the royal tombs of King Pedro I and Ines de Castro. Pedro and Ines is a heartbreaking tale of Portugal’s ill-fated lovers.
Ines came to Portugal in 1340 as a maid of Constance of Castile, who was recently married to Pedro, the heir apparent to the Portuguese throne. The prince fell in love with her and started to neglect his lawful wife, endangering the already feeble relations with Castile. Moreover, Pedro’s love for Ines brought the exiled Castilian nobility very close to power, with Ines’s brothers becoming the prince’s friends and trusted advisors. King Alfonso IV of Portugal, Pedro’s father, disliked Ines’s influence on his son and waited for their mutual infatuation to wear off, but it never did.
Constance of Castile died in 1345, weeks after giving birth to her son and future King of Portugal, Fernando . Alfonso IV tried several times to arrange for his son to be remarried, but Pedro refused to take a wife other than Ines, who was not deemed eligible to be queen. Pedro and Ines actually had four children together – Alfonso (who died shortly after birth), Beatrice, John and Denis.
Pedro’s legitimate son, future King Ferdinand I of Portugal, was a frail child, whereas Pedro and Ines’s illegitimate children were thriving. This created even more discomfort among the Portuguese nobles, who feared the increasing Castilian influence over Pedro. Alfonso IV banished Ines from the court after Constance’s death, but Peter remained living openly with her declaring her as his true love. After several attempts to keep the lovers apart, Alfonso IV ordered Ines to be put to death. On the 7th January 1355, three men went to the Monastery Of Santa Clara-a-Velha in Coimbra, where Ines had been detained, and they killed her, decapitating her in front of her children. When Pedro heard of this he sought out the killers. Two years later he became king and four years after that he managed to capture two of the killers. He executed them publicly, ripping their hearts out claiming they didn’t have one after having pulverized his own heart.
Pedro became king of Portugal in 1357. He then stated that he had secretly married Ines, who was consequently the lawful queen, although his word was, and still is, the only proof of the marriage.
Ines the Corpse Queen
Some sources say that after Peter became king of Portugal, he had Ines’s body exhumed from her grave and forced the entire court to swear allegiance to their new queen: “The king [Pedro] caused the body of his beloved Ines to be disinterred, and placed on a throne, adorned with the diadem and royal robes. and required all the nobility of the kingdom to approach and kiss the hem of her garment, rendering her when dead that homage which she had not received in her life…”.
Some modern sources characterize the story of the Ines’ post-mortem coronation is a “legend” and it is most likely a myth since the story only appeared in 1577 in Jerónimo Bermúdez’ play Nise Laureada.
Their eternal resting place together
The King never stopped loving his Ines, until death. During his lifetime, he commissioned matching tombs that tell their story through highly detailed relief scenes from the New Testament, from the life of Jesus and scenes from the Passion of Christ. King Pedro made sure her title as Queen as inscribed into her tomb.
At the foot of Ines tomb, is depicted the Final Judgement. Souls in death rising to Heaven and redemption or falling to Hell and their just deserts for their evil deeds. There’s a belief that with this last scene King Pedro wanted to show that he and Inês de Castro had a place in heaven, unlike the people who did them wrong, like his father and her killers.
At the foot of the King’s tomb, the Wheel of Fortune, has six petals and its images are interpreted to symbolize purity of love between them and the immortality and resurrection they will eventually achieve.
Their coffins were originally sat together opposite each other so that according to the legend, at the Last Judgement, Pedro and Ines can look at each other as they rise from their graves. They were at one point moved to be next to each other side by side, but now are reverted to the original position, on either side of the main aisle, as the King intended.
Both marble coffins are exquisitely sculpted with scenes from their lives and a promise by Peter that they would be together até ao fim do mundo (until the end of the world). Sadly both tombs were damaged in around 1810 by Napoleonic troops breaking in to look for treasure, but they still remain one of Portugal’s National Treasures today.
Understandably the two tombs are a major tourist attraction. Get there very early if you want to be able to take photos without lots of people in the background. They are best seen in a quiet and calm atmosphere.
Visiting the Alcobaca Monastery
It was then time to leave the church and head into the monastery. The first room we found was the Chamber of the Kings. It dates from the 17th century and is adorned with exceptional blue and white tiles that narrate the foundation of the monastery, and terracotta statues which represent the Kings of Portugal, all made by the potter monks of the monastery. It also exhibits a beautiful Gothic Virgin with the child.
These are undoubtedly some of the best tiles we’ve seen, both in terms of their quality and design, and also the state of preservation. This is a very impressive room.
What was funny about this room was a pair of pigeons had made a nest on one of the king’s heads and their chicks were making a hell of a racket. It certainly didn’t look like a very regal crown! Knowing the damage birds can do (and their droppings) we were surprised someone hadn’t moved them on.
We then visited the Cloister Of Silence. It’s big – very big, and again, beautiful in its calm simplicity. There are two levels, fitting the huge size of the monastery and the space it needed for all the monks to live and study. The upper level is reached by a tiny, almost secret, winding staircase that leads up from the kitchen, into a large dormitory and then up to the upper cloister.
Off of the Cloister Of Silence we found lots of rooms with two being of considerable interest.
First of all, we found the refectory. This is the room where the monks had their meals every day. While they ate, one of the monks read aloud passages of the Bible from a pulpit, which is embedded on one of the walls. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
The access to the pulpit is done through an arched gallery with a staircase. The pulpit is one of the most harmonious architectural structures of the monastery. The refectory room itself has an octagonal lavatorium opposite on the outer wall of the cloister, with large fountain for ritual ablutions before entering to eat. With around 1000 mouths to feed at its height, the room must have been a constant hive of activity and sittings. No wonder they ate in absolute silence – otherwises the noisse would have been deafening!
The refectory room itself is a little strange because it appears to be on a tilt. Although the walls and the floor are even and level, the windows and the border across the rear wall has a certain slope to the left. This imperfection must have caught the monks eye every time they ate!
And secondly, we found the kitchen. This was magnificent and massive. The kitchen was built and covered with tiles in the mid-18th century. The central chimney is enormous, supported by eight iron columns. It’s tall enough that we could walk underneath. There are huge stone tables where the food would have been prepared and 6 enormous sinks. Imagine all the washing up for 1000 people.
Incredibly water and fresh fish were diverted from the river Alcoa to the large sunken pool in the kitchen floor, through a specially built canal. Therefore fish could be kept alive and fresh until ready to cook.
At the rear of the main cloister and rooms is another huge area with a second courtyard garden and more rooms on two floors around the further 3 sides.s Sadly this area has fallen into disrepair and isn’t open to the public. From the outside we were able to peer in through some broken dusty windows and yes, it needs a lot of time and money spent to refurbish this area where the novices had their rooms and dormitories. Hopefully one day it can be completed, funded by the entrance fees to the monastery.
We highly recommend you visit this incredible church and monastery. And as we walked back to the motorhome we heard some absolutely stunning singing. See the video below. (Sadly our phone takes terrible video – sorry)
As he was playing some backing music we kind of both thought “was he miming along to the CD?”. This is just too good surely. Well, as we walked by him to give him a donation, like EVERYONE else did who stopped to listen (he was that good) we could not just hear that he was actually singing live, but we could feel the powerful vibration of his voice!
Alcobaca Monastery – a wonder of Portugal
On the 7th December 2006, six-month-long public elections started to select the top seven wonders of Portugal. All citizens of Portugal got to vote and they could cast their vote via the internet, telephone or by texting. The results of the vote were announced on 7 July 2007 and Alcobaca Monastery came 4th. So we have just seen the 4th wonder of Portugal! We highly recommend visiting.