The Cistercian Monastery of Alcobaça

Estabished in 1153 to commemorate the victory over the Moors at the Conquest of Santarem, the Monastery at Alcobaça is the finest example of Cistercian gothic architecture in Europe. Construction of the monastery complex began in 1179 and ran through the end of the 13th century, with significant later Baroque additions, notably to the facade.


The nave and side aisles typify the clean lines and elegant simplicity of the Cisterians. Emphasis is on the vertical and on light. Alcabaça is approximately 348 feet long and 56 feet wide. Aisle vaults are the same height as the nave. The only decorations are the column capitals.

The monks were famous for their terracotta sculptures, many of which are still in the monastery. The Chapel of St. Bernard shows the death of the saint.

Two ornate sandstone tombs, one in each arm of the transcript document the ill fated love story of King Pedro I and his mistress, Inês de Castro. Following the deat of his wife, Pedro and Inês lived as a married couple and had several children. They may have secretly married. Inês was assisinated by the Pedro’s father to end the relationship. Pedro had their ormate tombs placed with feet facing each other so they would be together in eternity. Pedro posthumously crowned her queen. Legends say he exhumed her body, dresses her, then sat her a throne for the coronation.

The Royal Pantheon (Room of the Tombs) is adjacent to the transept. It is an 18th-century addition to the church. It houses several 13th-century royal tombs, including that of Queen Urraca, who died in 1220. Her Romanesque tomb is decorated with carvings of the apostles.

The Kings Room joins the church to the Cloister of Silence. Terracotta statues of Portuguese kings circle the upper walls while 18-century tiles illustrating the founding of the monastery cover the lower walls.

The two- storey Cloister of Silence dates to the 14th century.

The monks living quarters open onto the cloister, including dormotories, the chapter house, and the kitchen. A 60 ft high 18th-century chimney dominates the kitchen, which also included a fish pond.

Rooms are in the elegant Cistercian style. The refectory, or dining room, includes a unique pulpit from which the bible or other lessons would be read while the monks dined.

A Church in Need of Salvation

Saint Dominic’s Church in the historic center of Lisbon looks like the average Baroque building from the outside. Which is surprising considering the original medieval church, the largest in Lisbon at the time, dated from 1241.

I expected a riot of painted ceilings and ornate moulding inside. Instead, I found a church in need of salvation. Cracked pillars, scarred surfaces and missing architectural elements gave the nave a forlorn and abandoned atmosphere.

I assumed the building had been damaged in the 1755 earthquake that leveled much of Lisbon. But many churches had been repaired or rebuilt after the quake. The answer was provided in copies of newspaper articles posted in the back. I couldn’t read the Portugese but the pictures told the story. On August 13, 1959, the church was gutted and nearly destroyed in a catastrophic fire.

A bit of research told me that the medieval church had been damaged by the 1531 Lisbon earthquake and virtually destroyed by the 1755 quake, when only the sacristy and altar survived. It was the late 18th-century Baroque reconstruction which had burned.

I also discovered St. Dominic’s was the site of the first deaths in the 1506 Easter Slaughter, a three-day massacre during which 2000 heretics, people accused of being Jews, were tortured and killed by rampaging crowds. Many were burnt alive or torn to pieces as mass hysteria spread. The crowd, many of them foreign sailors from the port, looted houses, stealing gold, silver and other goods.

Due to pressure from Spain, the Jews had been expelled from Portugal in 1496 or forcibly baptized as New Christians in 1497. Those who refused baptism were force to leave without their children. The Lisbon Massacre created a climate of suspicion throughout Portugal. Things went from bad to worse 30 years later when the Portuguese Inquisition was opened.

Perhaps its history is why I find St. Dominic’s an unsettling space, though I wasn’t aware of it when I visited. Could it be that the fires of the Inquisition were finally extinguished?

Convent of Saint Peter of Alcantara

Built in 1681, the small church of the Convent of Saint Peter of Alcantara and the adjacent Chapel of the Lencastres are a small gem.

The convent, in the Bairro Alto neighborhood, sits across from Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara park, one of Lisbon’s top viewpoints. It is close to the Elvador da Gloria, a funicular which connects with the city center.

Baroque azulejo (glazed tile) panels lining the nave walls tell the life story of St. Peter of Alcantar. Ornate flourishes, architectural elements, and putti (with heads at odd angles) frame the story panels. The tromp d’oeil ceiling painting gives the effect of delicate moulding.

The adjacent inlaid marble chapel is dedicated to Verissimo de Lencastre, Cardinal and Grand Inquisitor, who supported foundation of the convent.

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