Whoever said that size doesn’t matter has never been a victim of the one-size-fits-all dress design. They’ve never been driven to the brink of distraction by the lack of standardisation that makes a size 14 an 8 in Spain and a size 8 a 14 in Samoa. Size plays such a huge part of our lives that it can’t but matter. Can you be medal-winning 5-foot-tall basketball player (assuming you’re over the age of 18) or be a successful 14-stone jockey? I doubt it.
I’m quite partial to size. There are times when being in awe in the face of magnificence is humbling, a good calibration for those times you start to believe your own hype. I’m a sucker for descriptives like the smallest pub in Ireland or the largest church in Portugal. And it was to the latter that I was recently drawn. Now, of course, having done some homework, it turns out that it’s not actually the biggest church in Portugal any more. That’s now in Fatima. Depending, of course, on which source you believe.
In the middle of the medieval town of Alcobaça, the church is part of Mosteiro de Alcobaça. Entrance is free to both on Sunday before 2pm but at other times, there’s a charge to enter the monastery. It was late. I was hungry. And I was monasteried out. But I can always use the three wishes you get when you visit a church for the first time and I was curious to see for myself what the hype was about. Just how plain could such big church really be?
Wow. Wow. Wow. A minimalist’s dream, gobsmackingly gorgeous in its nakedness. What gold and gilt there was, were hidden in the side chapels. The rest was plain. Very plain. This, apparently, had something to do with the Order of Cistercians, the monks for whom the monastery was built. They’re rumoured to have liked clean, architectural lines. Mind you, the late seventeenth-century altarpiece depicting the death of St Bernard shows that they might have changed their minds a little as the years went on. The polychrome-painted terracotta is said to be representative of their pottery style.
There are two tombs in the church, those of King Pedro I and his mistress Inês de Castro. His sits on the backs of lions; hers on the backs of half-men/half-beasts. Theirs is a curious story. She was assassinated by Pedro’s father back in 1355. He was understandably a tad upset with this level of parental interference but once he became king himself, he had Inês’s remains transferred to the tomb in Alcobaça. Although just a little late in having his way, the story goes that he crowned her Queen of Portugal and had everyone come and kiss her dead (and no doubt decomposed) hand. Gruesome it might be but there’s something touching there … if you think about it.
In contrast to the church, the tombs are very intricate. Same style apparently but at the opposite end of the Gothic spectrum (if there even is such a thing). And while his touchingly depicts scenes from their life together, hers showcases the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement. The artist must have had a sense of humour.
There are other tombs in one of the naves, too, one of which might be Pedro’s dad and his mistress’s murderer (nothing like keeping it in the family!). There’s also a lovely little chapel of exposition that saw quite a bit of traffic when I was there. The church is really something. So far removed from the ornate edifices usually associated with the Catholic Church. It was clean, airy, huge. An excellent place to regain some perspective.
Having dinner afterwards at one of the many outdoor cafés nearby, the evening sun added even more to its majesty. It’s really is quite something. Next time, I might just make it to the monastery.