Monastery of Alcobaça (1989)

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The Monastery of Santa Maria d'Alcobaça, north of Lisbon, was founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso I. 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. 

Portugal 2002. World Cultural Heritage. Souvenir sheet showing the Alcobaca Monastery.

This imposing monument dominates Alcobaça, a small town situated roughly 100 km to the north of Lisbon in a fertile agricultural region dotted here and there with gentle hills. 

Two rivers, the Alcoa and the Baça, (a tributary of the Alcoa runs through the monastery's kitchen) gave the town its name of Alcobaça. 

  • Portugal 2002.  Souvenir sheet showing the Alcobaça Monastery, and one stamp featuring a detail from the monastery. A close-up of the stamp is shown below on this page.  

It is one of the few European monuments that has managed to preserve intact an entire group of mediaeval buildings and its church is the largest early Gothic construction in Portugal. The history of its foundation in 1153 recounted in the eighteenth century azulejo panels that line the walls of the Sala dos Reis (Kings' Hall). As we ''read'' the story of these panels, we learn that D. Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, promised St. Bernard his lands in Alcobaça if he managed to capture Santarém from the Moors, which did in fact happen in 1147. The statues of the Kings of Portugal - from D. Afonso Henriques to D. José I (in the eighteenth century) - stand on baroque consoles around the walls of the room. In the centre is a cauldron that is said, according to legend, to have been taken from the Castilians at the Battle of Aljubarrota. 

Portugal 2002. World Cultural Heritage. Interior from the Alcobaca Monastery.

The building of the monastery began in 1178, as did the building of the abbey of Clairvaux, the headquarters of the Cistercian Order in France. Alcobaça is thus connected to the great civilising project that the white- habited monks began there: the public school, which was begun in 1269, and the use of the land for farming purposes, providing a genuine agricultural training ground, the fruits of which are still visible today.

On each side of the doorway are two statues, one of St. Benedict and the other of St. Bernard, standing on consoles and covered with profusely carved canopies. These lend a certain lightness to the building, contrasting with the heaviness of the baroque decoration of the façade and bell towers. 
Portugal 2002. World Cultural Heritage. Statue of St. Benedict in the Alcobaca Monastery. Portugal 2002. World Cultural Heritage. Statue of St. Bernard in the Alcobaca Monastery.

The feeling that the visitor gains from looking at the monastery's exterior is one of an imposing grandeur that has been gradually added on by time and other ideals and contradicts the profound simplicity that marked the rules of the Cistercian Order. 

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Other World Heritage Sites in Portugal and Areas (on this website). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Portugal-section, for further information about the individual properties. 

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Revised 21 jul 2006  
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