I drove out of Leiria in the morning just as the business of the market was in full swing; and for the first half-hour of the upward way amid a country of vines and olives, we met crowds of country people riding into the town on heavily laden asses. Then, mounting high above the plain, we passed into the region of pines and heather, where the warm but invigorating air came charged with the scent of thyme, lavendar, and rosemary. At a point of the road, about eight miles from Leiria, a deep hollow opens to the left, and at the bottom of it, and reached by a downhill road running almost parallel with the way we came, lies the world-famed Abbey of Batalha, the wonder and envy of ecclesiastical architects for six centuries, and even now, dismantled and bedeviled as it is, one of the most beautiful Gothic structures in existence.
Before its west front I stand lost in admiration. The whole edifice is built of a marble-like lime-stone, which time has turned to a beautiful soft yellowish cream color, similar to that of an old Japanese ivory carving. Like most Portuguese cathedrals the body of the church is somewhat narrow; but in this case a large chapel on the north side extends the apparent width of the exterior west front. How can one hope to convey in written words an adequate impression of this exquisite facade? To the severe perpendicular parallel lines over the door and window, reminiscent of the west front of Lincoln, is added a lace-like elaboration of parapets, pinnacles, and glorious flying buttresses, which almost bewilders by its aerial gayety and trans-parent richness. A beautiful Gothic breast-rail stands before a double flight of steps leading down to the west door, for the abbey is lower even than the road before it; “the portal,” wrote William Beckford, a hundred and twenty years ago, “full fifty feet in height, surmounted by a window of perforated marble of nearly the same lofty dimensions, deep as a cavern, and enriched with canopies and imagery in a style that would have done honor to William of Wykeham, some of whose disciples or co-disciples in the train of the founder’s consort, Philippa of Lancaster, had probably designed it.”
To me this door presented itself rather more in detail. I saw a portal the whole width of the nave-space, the deep, beveled sides being occupied by the Twelve Apostles standing under rich Gothic canopies, and from the capitals above them a slightly pointed arch sprang ending in a floreated cross finial, the arch itself being composed of six orders, each occupied by a row of Kings of the House of David under exquisite Gothic canopies. The great window above is full of tracery so intricate and plastic in appearance as almost to banish the impression of a work in stone. The octagonal lantern of the side chapel is supported by flying buttresses of indescribable grace and lightness, and is fronted by a screen pierced with three Gothic windows almost level with the main west front; and upon every point of the building and along each side of the roof of the nave crocketed pinnacles rise, supported by fairy flying buttresses -the effect of the whole exterior from the west front being an exquisite blending of seriousness and exuberant rejoicing.
One of the great glories of Batalha is the side chapel, the octagonal “chapel of the Founder.” The arrangement of it and its general effect are strikingly like those of Queen Victoria’s mausoleum at Frogmore. In the center, standing high and imposing in all the pomp of Gothic tracery, are the twin tombs of John the Great and his English wife, their sculptured effigies hand in hand as the noble pair went through life; and around the chapel are ranged the sarcophagi of their sons Pedro, Joao, Fernando (who chivaIrously passed all the best years of his life a hostage to the Moor), and the greatest of them all, the Prince Dom Henrique the Navigator, who made Portugal a world power. Upon each stone coffin are carved the insignia of the Garter and the arms of England quartered with those of Portugal, and along the fillets run the quaint mot-toes that each royal personage adopted for his device.
A door in the south aisle leads into the renowned cloister, and here, the work being of a later date than the church, controversy has spent itself as to whether the luxuriant exuberance of the sculpture is, or is not, in perfect taste. Personally, I find the cloister exquisite beyond description, and I care not whether the purists condemn it or not. The sensation produced, it is true, islike all Manueline sculptureneither purely devotional nor highly exalted, but rather one of joyous delight in the actual handiwork, in the gracious curves, in the kaleidoscopic variety, in the dexterous adaptation of means to ends, and these sensations, tho I am told that they are vulgar when produced by ecclesiastical sculpture, I experienced in the fullest measure as I gaze at this marvel of human skill, the cloistered court of Batalha.
Standing in the center of the courtyard and looking up at the abbey, one sees three beautiful lace-like parapets rise one above the other along the whole length, on cloister, clerestory, and nave, clear-cut edges of perfect curves against the blue sky. Each of the cloister arches is filled with stone tracery of amazing richness and variety, the cross of the Order of Christ and the armillary sphere being deftly introduced in the fretwork with great effect.