Oh Vanity! Guide To Portugal's Alcobaça Monastery
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Oh vanity! Where art thou devout brothers of the cloth? In Alcobaça Portugal, apparently. Or at least they used to be. If you love history or architecture, the UNESCO-listed Alcobaça Monastery is a must see site in Portugal on a geographical cure. Alcobaça is an easy day trip from Lisbon. And it’s not boring, I promise.
Alcobaça is a pretty town on the Silver Coast. It lies between Coimbra and Lisbon and can be accessed as a day trip from either city or visited en route between them. The town is dominated by the austere and atmospheric 800 year old Monastery of Santa Maria de Alcobaça, the largest Gothic religious structure in Portugal.
It became a UNESCO site in 1989 because of its “size, the purity of its architectural style, the beauty of the materials and the care with which it was built make this a masterpiece of Cistercian Gothic art."
I found it more beautiful and compelling than the vastly more crowded Jeronimos Monastery outside Lisbon.
History of Alcobaça Monastery
According to legend, the Alcobaça Monastery was the product of a solemn promise.
In 1147, Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques was readying to fight the great Battle of Santarém against the Moors. This was the time of the Reconquista, the centuries long effort by Christians to drive the Moors out of Iberia. Afonso's honey-tongued cousin, Abbot Bernard Clairvaux, extracted a promise: if Afonso won the battle and became king, he would donate land and money to the Cistercian monks to build a great abbey.
After a victory, no doubt aided by divine intervention, King Afonso dropped his sword on the ground. During the night, angels came, collected the sword, and left it at the site that is now Alcobaça Monastery. As promised, building commenced.
The monastery was founded almost 800 years ago in 1153. Construction took place over centuries and it’s a mix of Gothic and Cistercian architecture with intricate workmanship. The monks moved into their new stone digs in 1223, and the church was finished in 1252.
The Cistercian monks were a serious and devout bunch, a Roman Catholic order founded in 1098. These hermits believed in the daily rituals of silent prayer and manual labor. They were solitary and severe ascetics.
With zeal, preaching, and sheer force of personality, Bernard grew the order and it reached its zenith in the 12th century, becoming rich and powerful. Alcobaça’s church and monastery reflect this apotheosis.
By the 18th century, however, the monks’ growing decadence had became famous. Writer William Beckford was shocked at the "perpetual gormandising … the fat waddling monks and sleek friars with wanton eyes." In 1843, the party ended with the dissolution of the religious orders.
What To See Inside Alcobaca Monastery
The Monastery's Church
When you approach the great edifice from the street, you are confronted with an imposing and ornate Baroque facade from 1702.
The monastery is far more impressive from the inside than the outside.
To my mind, the exterior looks a bit ungainly with two long wings to each side, and is difficult to photograph. The facade is adorned with two baldachins, which contain the statues of St. Bernard and St. Benedict. There is a balcony over the portal with four more statutes dedicated to the virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice.
Despite the overwrought Baroque overlay, once you enter the doors, everything changes. The monastery is actually a monument to simplicity and majesty. There is no riotous Baroque carnival inside. It feels light and airy.
You can visit the monastery church, completed in 1269, for free.
And it’s dramatic. The 100+ meter long nave seemed almost surreal. It was towering, overwhelming, and eerie — perhaps because it was utterly devoid of ornamentation. It had a sober and austere feel, reflecting the Cistercian philosophy of St. Bernard, who exclaimed:
“Oh, vanity! More insanity than vanity! There are shining churches everywhere, but poor people are hungry.”
In the south chapel of the transept, there is an altar with a beautiful terracotta sculpture made in the 17th century by the Alcobaça monks called “St. Bernard’s death.” The tombs of the Portuguese kings Afonso II and Afonso III are on each side.
The church was innovative in its use of flying buttresses on the outside of the high altar.
An Alcobaca Love Story: The Tombs of Pedro and Inês
In the transept, you’ll find the monastery's greatest possession: two magnificent royal tombs lying opposite each other. They provide a gripping and tragic back story in contrast to all the Cistercian austerity.
They are the "his and hers" marble tombs of the star crossed lovers King Pedro I of Portugal and the catastrophically beautiful Inês de Castro of Spain. Theirs is a tragic medieval tale of obsessive love and political intrigue, the Portuguese equivalent of Romeo & Juliet. Inês was murdered by Pedro’s father. \
Their tombs are ornate Gothic affairs. They are both carved with the phrase Até ao Fim do Mundo, which means "Until the End of the World.” Pedro wanted Inês to be the first person he saw on Judgment Day.
Pedro's tomb rests on lions and shows scenes from the life of St. Bartholomew. It has a "life wheel" at one end, which looks like a rose window, depicting the life of the two lovers. Pedro has a dog at his feet representing his fidelity to Inês.
Like Pedro, Inês' effigy is supported by 6 angels. Her tomb depicts Pedro and Inês reunited in Paradise. It shows scenes from the life and death of Jesus. And it's supported by figures that are half-men and half-beast, representing her assassins.
Inside the Monastery's Cloisters
Now for the monastery proper. You first access the Sacristy via a striking Manueline door. It is all that remains of the old Manueline Sacristy that collapsed during the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The pillars of the door are two knotty tree trunks with exposed roots.
The new Sacristy has a magnificent plaster ceiling and a small octagonal chapel. The chapel is made of golden wood and has niches housing relics and statutes of Cistercian monks. It’s called the “Mirror of Heaven.”
On the north side, you'll find a door to the King’s Hall.
The lower half of the walls is covered in panels of hand painted blue and white azulejos, which depict the legend of the founding of the monastery. The upper half of the walls have corbels that support polychrome terracotta statues of the Portuguese kings from Afonso Henrique to King Jose.
They were made by the monks in the 18th century. You can even see the change in royal fashion over time.
The Manueline Cloister of King Dinis is square shaped and open on top, linking heaven and earth. It’s also called the “Silence Cloister" and was built by order of King Manuel I. Dom Dinis built the intricate lower storey, with its arches and traceried stone circles in the 14th century. The upper story, Manueline in style, was added in the 16th century.
The full center arches are surmounted by segmental arches, and are quite unusual and eye catching. The arches are supported by columns decorated with plants and leaves.
The cloister has four galleries overlooking a garden. In my view, the garden could use some TLC. There is a beautiful Gothic foundation as well as other sculptures and stone carvings.
Near the Cloister of Reading you'll find the Chapter Room. Its vaulted ribbed ceiling and “palm tree” columns reminded me of La Conciergerie in Paris. This was the meeting room of the monks. Here, they conducted community-related business The Chapter Room was also their confessional.
The next room is Monks’ Hall or the Big Hall where the monks worked. This room is similar to the Chapter Room.
Another interesting room is the New Kitchen, built in the 18th century. In the middle is a massive tiled chimney, which seems wide enough to have cooked any number of large animals. The 60 foot high New Kitchen is completely lined with tiles dating from 1752.
The arches to the left housed large sinks with faucets. Some of the faucets were rather frightening.
Afonoso's land gift came at the confluence of two rivers. The monastery was built with one corner practically in the river. River water was run through internal canals that gave the monastery an unheard of luxury in the 13th century: running water with the simple twist of a faucet handle. There was even a water channel that diverted wild fish right into the kitchen.
The monks really excelled at hydraulic engineering.
Upstairs, there is a Dormitory where the monks slept. It has the same striking vaulted ceilings. There is a viewing pane that looks down on the church and you can see the twin tombs of Pedro and Inês. The upper cloister is also where you can spot various animal gargoyles.
The next room is, I think, the most beautiful in the monastery — the Refectory. Like the Chapter Room and Monk’s Hall, the roof is Gothic vaulted. It has a nave, two aisles, and a reader’s pulpit. You can climb the arched stairway on one side.
This is where the monks ate while the bible was recited from the pulpit. Carved into Refectory's entrance are the words: “Consider that you eat the sins of the people.” Is this an admonishment to eat more?
As noted above, monkish obesity was a real thing in the middle ages. And it wasn’t just Robin Hood’s fictional Friar Tuck. Early on at Alcobaça, the monks were put through a test. If they could not squeeze through a narrow doorway to the dining room, they were consigned to fasting. It was the medieval equivalent of fat shaming.
Later, though, the monks plumped up on their diet of saturated fats. "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach and this seems specially to have been the case with monks," said Philippa Patrick, of the Institute of Archaeology in London. "They were taking in about 6,000 calories a day, and 4,500 even when they were fasting."
After a thorough tour of Brother Bernard’s legacy, we burst back out into the sunshine of Alcobaça. Despite lessons on purity and asceticism, we commenced shopping, poking in and out of the little ceramic boutiques, an activity which Bernard would no doubt have renounced.
Then, we indulged in some gourmet ice cream. After all, we were instructed to "eat our sins" in Alcobaça.