Alcobaça Monastery (World Heritage)

The origin of the monastery goes back to a vow made by Alfons I. He had it built in gratitude for the victory against the Moors in 1147. The monastery building is one of the largest sacred structures in the country and introduced the Gothic style to Portugal. Alcobaça is closely linked to the founding of the state of Portugal and has been its spiritual center for centuries. Visit for travel destinations in Portugal.

Alcobaça Monastery: facts

Official title: Alcobaça Monastery
Cultural monument: originally the most important of the 18 Portuguese Cistercian monasteries and the final resting place of Pedro I and his lover Inés de Castro, a Spanish lady-in-waiting of his first wife Constança, as well as tombs of Alfons II and Alfons III in the side chapels of the transept of the 106 m long monastery church; Monastery with a Gothic cloister and Manueline upper floor, an 18 m high kitchen, the refectory and the royal hall decorated with terracotta figures; a once rich monastery with lands and three seaports from São Pedro de Muel to São Martinho do Porto
Continent: Europe
Country: Portugal
Location: north of Lisbon
Appointment: 1989
Meaning: a masterpiece of Gothic architecture by the Cistercians

Alcobaça Monastery: History

1139-85 Afonso Henriques (Alfonso I, the Conqueror), who achieved Portugal’s independence from Castile-Leên
1153-1252 Construction of the monastery abbey of Santa Maria de Alcobaça, also called Nossa Senhora de Alcobaça
1269 Establishment of a theological college
1339 Wedding of the future King Pedro I with Constança, a Castilian princess
1357-67 Reign of King Pedro I.
1725 baroque facade design
1755 Damage from an earthquake
1808 secularization that began with the French occupation
1930 Declaration on the listed monument
2007 An overwhelming majority voted for the monastery to be one of the seven wonders of Portugal in a national competition

Power through work and asceticism

Afonso Henriques, who had just been crowned king, promised the Cistercian order in 1147 that where the two rivers Alcoa and Baça converged, he would transfer land and found a monastery if the Virgin Mary would help him drive the “unbelieving” Moors out of the embattled city of Santarém. Afonso Henriques was in any case still indebted to the head of the order, Bernhard von Clairvaux, of Burgundian origin like the new monarch, because four years earlier he owed the diplomacy of the influential abbot for the recognition of the Portuguese crown by Pope Innocent II.

The Portuguese army was victorious and the vow was fulfilled: For decades, the Cistercians, committed to asceticism and labor, built the ornate monastery abbey of Santa Maria de Alcobaça. Measured against the possibilities of that time, the builders created a “skyscraper” that could hardly be surpassed in terms of architectural effort and daring. With three huge naves of the same height and twelve vaults on two dozen supporting bundle pillars, they created the largest and most beautiful Cistercian church in Portugal, which is also the largest of all Cistercian churches in Europe. Cleansing and arrogance were not compatible with the strict rules of the friars, but with the enormous space that grew up here in the sky, they grew all the more.

The will for simplicity is convincing: without side chapels or magnificent jewelry, the interior of the church is effective solely through the sandstone pillars reaching towards the sky, the clear lines and the power of the bare stone. The two-tower abbey facade was redesigned in the early 18th century according to baroque designs, but this does not detract from the otherwise Gothic jewel. In the two-aisled transept, visitors will encounter the two magnificent white marble sarcophagi of King Pedro I and his lover Inés de Castro as the only pieces of jewelery. Their romance, which moved an entire nation and ended so cruelly with the murder of the Spanish lady-in-waiting, is carved in the stone, a masterpiece of the 14th century. The sarcophagi face each other so that when one is resurrected, one sees the other.

The Cistercians, who came to Portugal from France in the first half of the 12th century, had split off from the Benedictines in order to revert to the original rules of the order – prayer, renunciation, spiritual and physical work. After the monastery was founded in 1153, the first thing the monks dressed in white robes began to do was to reclaim and settle the depopulated land, which had been completely devastated by the war. In a short time they built up a flourishing agricultural and manufacturing self-sufficiency economy. With their far-reaching activities in the field of education, the Cistercians provided important development aid in the still young Portugal.

The rigorous retreat from the world behind the monastery walls and the economic success gave the monastery the independence it needed to keep itself free from the influence of spiritual and secular powers. Since the abbots were often members of royal families, the monastery quickly assumed a powerful position in the country. The Cistercians of Alcobaça ruled over more than 600 square kilometers of land, including numerous commercial villages, through donations.

The 999 friars – according to the rule of the order, always one less than 1000 – did not allow themselves to be lacking in physical pleasures despite all the waiver. A kitchen of stately dimensions was available to the cook: six whole oxen could be roasted at the same time in the 18 meter high fireplace. The resourceful monks led a tributary of the Alcoa River through the middle of the kitchen so that the trout swam straight into their pots.

The ascetic life, enriched with occasional enjoyment, ended for the monks with the French occupation of Portguals and the subsequent dissolution of the order.

Alcobaça Monastery (World Heritage)