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Cistercian Alcobaça Monastery remains the largest church in Portugal

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 9th, 2011
Catholic Online (

Facing the Moors in an important battle at Santarém in March 1147, Afonso Henríques vowed that he would build a great monastery if God granted him victory. After winning the battle and becoming the first Portuguese king, Afonso founded the Monastery of St. Mary at Alçobaca in 1153 and gave it to Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian abbot who had strongly promoted the Crusades. The church was the first building in Portugal to adopt the Gothic style and remains the largest church in the country.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The Cistercian monks lived in simple huts for several decades while they waited for the monastery to be built. Building began in 1178 and monastery buildings began to be occupied in 1223.

The architects were likely of French origin and based their design on the Abbey of Clairvaux, founded by St. Bernard in 1115. When the church was completed in 1252, it was the first fully Gothic building and the largest church of any style in Portugal.

The monks of Alcobaca made significant contributions to Portuguese culture. In 1269, they were the first to give public lessons to their flock and later they produced the authoritative history on Portugal in a series of books.

The monastery escaped major damage in the great 1755 earthquake. In 1794, Lord Beckford visited and commented that he found some 300 monks "living in a very splendid manner!" But monastic life at Alcobaca was hastening to an end.

In 1810, invading French troops looted the famous library, robbed the tombs, and stole and burnt part of the inner decoration of the church. Whatever was left was later stolen in 1834 during an anti-clerical riot that accompanied the official dissolution of monastic life in Portugal.

Alcobaca Monastery was designated a World Heritage Site in 1989 because "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."

Stretching 327 feet in length, the interior of the church is an exquisite example of Cistercian Gothic architecture. In accordance with austere Cistercian principles, decoration is minimal, allowing maximum appreciation of the soaring vertical lines. The side aisles are as tall as the central nave. The ribbed vaults are supported on transverse arches and large pillars with engaged columns. The apse, flooded with light from large Gothic windows, has an ambulatory with radiating chapels.

From the ambulatory, a corridor leads to the sacristy, built in the Manueline style in the early 16th century and rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake. The corridor has a splendid lierne vault and a richly ornamented Manueline portal with the Portuguese coat of arms.

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