Although it could be considered simplistic, the study of architecture according to its styles, or based on the characteristic motifs on buildings of recognisable forms, does nonetheless serve a purpose as a way to understand them. The isolated study of forms has led us to conclude that the evolution of styles is cyclic, normally beginning with primitive or archaic forms before achieving a moment of harmony, frequently referred to as classic, and then coming to a head in a period of exuberant creativity, sometimes dramatic, singular and extravagant.
What remains for us to see at the Monastery of Batalha (since two 16th century cloisters and their annexes no longer exist) is predominantly gothic. In the church, the sacristy and the Royal Cloister, the first architect Afonso Domingues made use of a language which, within the gothic style, came to be known as radiant, coinciding with the classic moment of that period’s architectural development.
With the arrival of Huguet, who would substitute Afonso Domingues upon the old master’s death, the repertory of flaming gothic architecture made a sudden appearance at Batalha, for the first time in Portugal. The word flaming derives from the Latin term flama, or ‘flame’ and gains its significance in final Gothic from its decorative and structural characteristics, such as the frequent appearance of the counter-curved arch resembling a flame. As this was also a moment where gothic art achieved a kind of international critical mass, flaming is also known as international gothic. Prevalent in the flaming gothic style and appearing constantly at Batalha is not only the counter-curved arch but also a more complex approach to certain structural elements such as the nervures of the vaults or the columns, normally grouped in pillars. Sliced transversally, the nervures have metamorphosed from a kind of square with ballooning corners, in the radiant, to a triangular form, in the flaming. The columns maintain the cylindrical shaft but their extremities are no longer round but faceted. On the capitals and endparts or keystones of the vaults, the plants, flowers and fruits which are the habitual decorative motifs no longer are built up in levels or slices but suddenly are full of energetic movement. This style would be continued by Martim Vasques, who followed Architect Huguet.
In the middle of the 15th century, with the Cloister of King Afonso V, Fernão de Évora would inaugurate a transformation in the project which cannot be explained away solely by the cyclic theory of styles: the exuberance of the flaming would be juxtaposed with a dramatically unadorned style (with the exception of the keystones of the vaults), reminiscent of the Cistercian structures built before Batalha. It was Vergílio Correia who baptised this phenomenon with the name ‘linear gothic’. As in Cistercian monuments, the nervures are characterised by their quadrangular cross-section, with chamfered ridges that are frequently set into corbels.
In the last years of the 15th century and during the first two decades of the 16th, the so-called Manueline style would make its first appearance at Batalha and indeed Portugal, which, as the name suggests, corresponds to the reign of King Manuel I. The brilliant inventor of the architectural language this time became known for was the architect Mateus Fernandes. His work, visible in the crosspieces of the windows and in the stall of the Royal Cloister, as well as in the doorway of the Unfinished Chapels, is an explosion of exuberant imagery that is only tempered by the Cloister of Fernão de Évora. The architecture is suddenly treated as if it were a monumental sculpture. Nonetheless, the works of Mateus Fernandes are still noted for their rigorous geometric faithfulness to the traditional basic flaming style of Batalha. As a matter of fact, the geometric base was not only maintained but refined even further: the arches would reveal numerous intersections and planes, and the faceted shapes would bend in order to intersect at various points.
The Manueline style is considered a monument to final gothic, with specific national traits, as would also happen in neighbouring Spain with the ‘Plateresque’ style. Nonetheless, Manueline architecture (and Plateresque) contain the germ of modernity, in the sense that they belong to those cases which reveal the limitations of stylistic analysis, when it is automatically assumed a style’s final moments are symbolic of its decadence and extinction. On the other hand, while we are able to recognise a formal style of Manueline architecture, it is also the case that there is a world of difference between the work of Mateus Fernandes and, say, João de Castilho (who emerged from the Plateresque tradition), Boitaca or the Arruda brothers. This is why the work visible on the higher parts of the Unfinished Chapels, of unidentified origin, is so different from that on the great doorway of Mateus Fernandes.
By way of contrast, above that same doorway we see a Mannerist gallery, by architect Miguel de Arruda, who nevertheless made an effort to blend in with the Manueline structure around it. The long-vanished cloisters were also in the Mannerist style.