The Alcobaça Monastery was among Portugal’s first Gothic buildings. Founded in 1153 by the first Portuguese King, the stone cathedral and monastery was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.
The stone church and surrounding buildings were built between 1178 and 1300 and mark the arrival of the Gothic style of architecture in Portugal. Originally, following the Order of Cistercians, the monastery was built along very clean, simple lines. Today, these plain wings flank the cathedral, which is a combination of the original style and later 18th century additions. Alcobaça is still Portugal’s largest church.
The 12th and 13th century Kings Alfonso II and Alfonso III are buried in the Chapel of Saint Bernard, flanked by a sculpture representing the Death of St. Bernard. The sculptural group is considered the best work of 17th century Alcobaça monks. Two royal 14th century tombs, of King Pedro I and his mistress, Ines de Castro, are located in the church’s transept. Considered the best Gothic sculptural works in all of Portugal, the tombs are supported by lions and angels who carry the supine figures. Both are decorated with scenes of the King’s life as well as reliefs representing the life of Christ and Saint Bartholomew. The artist is unknown.
The Royal Pantheon is an 18th century addition to the cathedral, located off the church’s right side transept. Representing Portugal’s earliest neo-Gothic architecture, the pantheon contains the 13th century tombs of two women, Urraca of Castile and Beatrix of Castile, married to Alfonso II and III respectively. Both tombs are elaborately decorated with reliefs in the Romanesque style.
Among the architectural highlights of the monastery is the Cloister of Silence, built in the 13th century and decorated with plant and animal motifs. Constructed under King Dinis I, it represents the final addition to the Medieval portion of the building. A Gothic fountain hall in the cloister contains a renaissance style stone water basin decorated with the monastery’s coat of arms and fictional monsters.
A Chapter House, which would have been the second most important structure on the grounds, aside from the church itself, is entered through a Romanesque doorway and today, displays several Baroque sculptures, carved by the monks in the 17th and 18th centuries as decoration for the main church.
Additional structures include a refectory and dormitory from the 1500’s and a mid 1700’s kitchen. A sacristy was originally built in the 1500’s, and then re-built 200 years later after having been damaged in the earthquake of 1755. The 18th century Room of the Kings, located near the church’s entrance, houses 18th century statues of Portugal’s Kings, and is decorated with tiles that illuminate the monastery’s history.
History: Portugal’s first monastery of the Cistercian Order, construction began on the building in 1178. The church was dedicated to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a leader in the reform out of which the Cistercian Order was formed. Four years later, St. Bernard was canonized. By 1252 the church was complete, and Afonso Henriques, the first Portuguese King had thus firmly established colonization of lands taken from the Moors and the push of the southern expansion of Christianity.
Monks living at the monastery dedicated their lives to meditation, produced illuminated histories of Portugal, and established one of the largest medieval libraries. Through the middle ages, the monastery remained relevant and expanded its reach with purchases of agricultural acreage throughout the countryside. In the 1700’s, architectural additions included the second floor of the cloister and two new church towers, which frame the church’s rose window.
The last monks left the monastery in 1834 when Portugal nationalized the property of male monastic orders. The site was deemed a National Monument in 1907, and classified as protected fifty years later. Today, it is one of Portugal’s most visited tourist sites.
Ongoing Programs and Education: The monastery offers guided visits, and educational programming that teaches visitors about the history of the site, its art and architecture. Themed tours take place approximately once monthly and offer a focused one to three hours of exploration under a professional guide. Recent English speaking three-hour tours have included The Monastery Of Alcobaça And The Marian Dedication Of Portugal, The Liturgy Of The Hours In The Organization Of Life In The Abbey Of Alcobaça, and The Allegory Of The Hall Of Kings.
Events at the monastery include the Cistermúsica Festival, which has taken place annually since 1991. Since 1999, the Sweets and Spirits Festival has exhibited the culinary tradition of the Cistercian Monks and Nuns. The event offers a tasting of the liquors and sweets that were developed by the monks, originally in secrecy, over hundreds of years.
Praça 25 de Abril, 2460 – 018, Alcobaça, Portugal, Phone: +35-12-62-50-51-28