Portuguese Gothic Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Can architecture reflect a country's status in the world? What makes a building style in one country unique from another? In this lesson, explore elements unique to Portuguese Gothic architecture.

What's Gothic Architecture?

Gothic is an architecture style that developed in medieval Europe beginning in France in the twelfth century. It gradually spread through western and southern Europe, with each location adding style variations of its own. This is certainly true of Portugal, where Gothic traits intermingled with unique elements connected to historical events in Portugal. We'll get to those later. First let's review traits common to all Gothic architecture.

Gothic architecture emphasized vertical space, achieved by a series of elements. These include pointed arches, often used for windows and doors, the development of tracery, a system of stonework supports between segments of glass that allowed larger, wider and higher windows, and increasing use of stained glass. Gothic structures also used ribbed vaults, ceiling structures composed of connected arches, and flying buttresses, external structural supports that combined elements of piers and arches, to support the thinner and higher walls. All these elements combined to create a sense of soaring height.

Gothic Architecture Arrives in Portugal

Gothic architecture arrived in Portugal at the end of the twelfth century, largely due to the Cistercians, a religious order whose members lived and worshiped together apart from surrounding society. The first king of Portugal had promised lands to an influencial Cistercian, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, if the Portuguese defeated the Moors (a culture of Islamic faith that had invaded Portugal) and reclaimed the Portuguese cultural center of Santarem. The Portuguese won and as a result, the king built the Monastery of Alcobaça (begun in 1178), the country's first Gothic structure.

Monastery of Alcobaca: Gothic elements include a large stained glass window, pointed arches and spires atop towers.
Entrance to Alcobaca

In this image of Alcobaça, a mix of Gothic traits is visible, including pointed entrance arches, a large rose window filled with stained glass, and many tapered pinnacles and spires. But from the beginning, Portuguese Gothic is a little more decorative with embellishments and flourishes. Alcobaça has many freestanding figural sculptures (not something that was always seen on European Gothic churches at the time) and its two towers have shallow domes, elements similar to things found in Islamic architecture.

Later Gothic Architecture in Portugal

Into the thirteenth century in places like Lisbon, buildings created using earlier styles were modernized by adding Gothic elements. Many were churches, but castles were also built using elements of Gothic style. Some elements, however, like the rounded domes on the Monastery of Alcobaça, also reflect Portugal's location on the Iberian Peninsula, where Christian and Islamic cultures intersected.

In the late 1300s, construction began on another important Gothic monastery, this time in gratitude to the Virgin Mary for a victory over the Castilians (Spanish) in 1385. The Monastery of Batalha (the word batalha means 'battle') took over one hundred years to complete and its stunning mix of elements influenced other buildings throughout Portugal.

View of Exterior of Monastery of Batalha
Exterior of Monastery of Batalha

Flying Buttresses at the Monastery of Batalha
Flying buttress from Batalha

Batalha combines traditional Gothic elements like flying buttresses, many pinnacles (miniature spires) and stained glass windows with elaborate decorative stonework.The use of buttresses and pinnacles is a hallmark of Gothic architecture. But the elaborate lacy stonework and layers of intricate decoration are unique to Portugal.

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