In terms of the symbolic content of the architecture, which draws from the vastest assortment of iconography, when we analyse the cultural significance of the images present, not only do they have a literal meaning but also a different metaphorical meaning. What could be termed symbolic would be recognizing in the representation of an artichoke the renewal of life, the resurrection of Jesus or the permanence of a king. Not considered symbolic, for example, is the representation of figures from the Old or New Testament, clearly recognisable as who they are meant to be.
The composition of elements for the main doorway of the church are symbolic, to the extent in which there exists a deliberate relationship between these figures that is intended to signify the Church and its history. A celestial hierarchy, descending down from the seraphim and musical angels to the saints and Christian martyrs, via the kings and prophets of the Old Testament, grouped around the archivolts which hug the tympanum, while excluding the coming of Christ – as shown in the Gospels – which is actually depicted in the tympanum itself, along with the writers around the Lord Our Father. Beneath ceiling height, we see the Apostles, spreading their gospel throughout the four corners of the world. Prominence is given to the New Covenant. The Lord Our Father appears again at the top of the doorway, crowning the Virgin.
The corbels on which sit the apostles, placed along the length as well as the rectangular frame of the façade arch, are likewise decorated with the shields of King João I and Queen Filipa de Lencastre, who, as symbols of power, had already been clearly referenced on the side door. In this case, we see the complete coat of arms with the griffin, helmet and shield. The shields of the monarchs and princes are repeated throughout the monastic complex, on tombs, the keystones of vaults, window crosspieces, walls, the refectory pulpit, on stained glass and mural paintings.
The 14th century tombs in the Founder’s Chapel follow a precise symbolic code which, besides the personal coat of arms, integrates military honours and the motto of each person buried there, a practice which was begun with the Avis dynasty. The motto is comprised of a saying (an alm, adage or lemma) and an image (the body of the motto). Therefore, for example, King D. João I has a saying “For good” (“Por bem” ) and the body of the motto is a hawthorn bush.
Person Alm (soul) of the motto Body of the motto
King João I Por bem Hawthorn bush
Queen Filipa de Lencastre Yl me plet Hawthorn bush
King Duarte Tan ya serey Ivy
Infante Fernando Le bien me plet Rosebush branches interweaved in three circles
Infante João Jay bien reson Pouch with three scallops
Infante Henrique Talant de bien fere Kermes oak branches
Infante Pedro Desir Scales
Afonso V Jamais A dripping waterwheel, with the inscription "VII e"
João II Pola lei e pola grei A pelican feeding its young with its own blood
Manuel I Spera in Deo e fac bonitatem An armillary sphere, with the inscription "MROE" on the ellipse
The body of the motto itself has a metaphorical meaning. For example the ivy, as adopted by King Duarte, signified during the medieval period friendship between knights and duty until death, and the scales of the Infante Pedro represented the Archangel Saint Michael, his protector.
It was during the reign of King Manuel I that symbolic imagery came to have unprecedented importance in architecture, which was also evolving formally at that time. The use of imagery played its part in a vast consolidation of royal power, which had ambitions of being more sacred and centralised than ever. At Batalha, there is no complete building which demonstrates this phenomenon, unlike for example in Tomar. Nonetheless, the intention to put this into practise was clearly there, either by way of the stained glass of the main chapel and chapter house, or the crosspieces and wash stall of the Royal Cloister, or even more dramatically in the doorway of the Unfinished Chapels, which on their completion would have illustrated this most succinctly. In the main chapel we can add to this the royal heraldry, as well as on the western façade of the church of the Convent of Christ, the representation left and right, respectively, of the spiritual and earthly cavalries, shown as two standard-bearers. The power shifts between the Crown and the Dominicans is explicitly referenced by the substitution of the protective saints of the royal couple by two preacher friars. In the chapter house stained glass windows, it is visible in the scenes of the Passion represented by the lancets, the royal and Dominican heraldry and the instruments of the Passion. Christ’s Cross and the armillary sphere appear once again, though this time discretely, in the stone crosspieces of the grand windows of the Royal Cloister. The doorway of the Unfinished Chapels, of the undertaking of King Duarte, is the most impressive symbolic display of all the monastic buildings due to its intricacy, at ceiling height facing west, here and there depicting artichokes, and snail shells on the base. The artichoke symbolises the mystery of the Resurrection; the snail shell periodic regeneration, death and rebirth. The eastern side of the doorway shows, if discretely, the heraldic emblems of King Manuel. The pattern is repeated throughout all the chapels of Duarte’s pantheon, with the exception of two, distinctly that of King João II, in whose vaulted intersections we see the pelican, body of the motto of the King, and the shrimp fisherman, body of the motto of Queen Leonor.
The gargoyles occupy a special place here, endowed with a symbolic value that is sometimes diffuse and in others indecipherable. For the most part they are monsters composed of various animal parts, or even sometimes particularly absurd or obscene fantasy creatures. For this reason, they have been interpreted in the most of diverse ways: as protective beings, a reaction to a carnivalesque perception of the world, a small window of creative freedom for the sculptors, etc. Their greatest merit appears to reside in their richness of interpretation and their supremely provocative imagination. In any case, at Batalha, many of the gargoyles were substituted or simply redone during the restoration work of the 18th century, which makes any attempt to study medieval iconography in depth rather difficult.
Asides from the metaphorical meaning of the sculpted and written material, the Monastery of Batalha can claim to have another, more abstract dimension. We know that the conception of religious buildings, in the Middle Ages, followed symbolic precepts, as regards not only the respective geometry of its plan, but also the numerical relationships between spatial elements of its construction. The latter requires more in-depth analysis, according to the system of measures used at the time (roman feet, royal feet or the common (‘craveiro’) span of 22cm; in no other way is it possible to ascertain the original numerical calculations based on these measuring systems, their multiplication and division. As for the buildings’ geometry, we can recognise certain symbolic aspects with some ease. Asides from the evident Latin cross of the church plan, which appears with some insistence to be associated with the number eight (the number of the Resurrection) in structural and spatial elements, there is also the symbolism of the pantheons to consider. In planimetrics, the Founder’s Chapel is composed of an octagon set into a square. The choice of a central plan for a funeral building is already in itself symptomatic, since it references the model of the Holy Sepulchre, as had already been the case with other Portuguese construction, the most famous of which being the Round church of Tomar. Nonetheless, what is curious about the Founder’s Chapel is the fact that there is a quadrangular base which becomes circular in shape by way of an octagon. In medieval theology, the square is a shape associated with the earthbound and imperfect and the circle, with the celestial and perfect. In this context, the mollifying and symbolic character of the plan becomes clear. The octagon was taken up by the same architect, Huguet, in the project for the Unfinished Chapels.