The Eternal Face of Inês de Castro
The Monastery of Alcobaça was founded in 1153 by my ancestor, Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. It was the first Gothic structure built in this country, and the enormity of the complex is impossible to describe. I spent the afternoon there yesterday, awed by not only the scale of the place, but the attention to detail — the carvings in every marbled doorway, arch and pillar; the statues of saints, kings, bishops and abbots; the elaborate tombs and the largest fireplace and chimney I’ve ever seen. What I always find myself thinking when visiting the old castles and convents of Portugal is how impressive they are, knowing they were built with none of the cranes and heavy equipment that sends towers hundreds of feet into the air in our own busy century. Every element, every stone, every detail was possible only through the most rigorous labor, and so many of them are connected to my ancestors, which always leaves me feeling more like I’m on pilgrimage than a visitor or idle tourist.
I had heard of the Monastery some years ago as one of Portugal’s most impressive structures and a must-see when visiting, but until yesterday I had not had the chance. I had suggested it on two previous day trips in the area, but was traveling with friends bent on visiting the nearby beaches in Peniche and Nazaré. Alcobaça rests in the coastal ranges of Central Portugal, a modern town grown up now around the medieval streets, the Monastery presiding over the surrounding squares and plazas. Chapel by chapel, through kitchen, refectory and store room, dormitories and cloisters, it is orderly and labyrinthine. We followed the arrows directing us through the complex ensuring we wouldn’t become lost, though several times the possibility of becoming so was evident. Everywhere the meaning of Gothic was apparent — light. Light pouring down from the many windows, flooding the white marbled chambers, pooling across the floors, illuminating the pillars, walls, and the carved tendrils around every doorway. Light seeming to radiate out from the chapels of the saints and Our Lady of Pity, and there, near the end of our tour, in the great church, light bathing the tomb of Inês de Castro, and across the nave, that of her beloved Prince, Dom Pedro I.
I first heard the story of Pedro and Inês a few years ago. The first wife of Pedro I, heir to the throne, died, and he subsequently dedicated himself to his mistress, Inês de Castro, a Galician noblewoman who had arrived at court as Lady in Waiting to his first wife. Pedro’s father, King Afonso IV was determined his son would marry into one of the Iberian royal houses, one that would help bolster Portugal’s independence against the Castilian throne, solidifying alliances for the small country. After losing patience with his son’s refusal to abandon his lover, had Inês murdered. According to legend, Pedro hunted down and killed the assassins, and after assuming the throne, had Inês’s body exhumed, crowned posthumous queen of Portugal, and forced his court to kiss the hem of her burial gown. Further legend says that in his grief, he passed years at her estate in Coimbra, weeping near the lover’s fountain where they once spent their days, and thus giving the estate it’s name — Quinta das Lágrimas — Farm of the Tears. I visited the Quinta das Lágrimas in the spring, and the deep forest, the springs, ponds and fountains surrounding the villa where Pedro and Inês had once dreamed of a life together leave one feeling one has left behind the 21st century — that around any bend in the path Pedro and Inês are walking arm in arm, or sitting on a bench happy, in love, innocent of the tragedy that will tear them apart and leave them legends, eternally dedicated to each other, eternally pulled apart, and one way or another, forever united.
Knowing the story of their lives makes coming across their tombs, forever dominating the church of the Monastery, boldly sharing their final resting place together, defying the forces that pulled them apart, a romantic encounter. The white marble holds the descent of afternoon light, and the beautiful face of Inês, the formidable face of Pedro are luminous, seeming soft, as though it is not marble that is holding the sun’s warmth, but something softer — alabaster or velvet or even ordinary human flesh. I circled Inês’s tomb for a quarter of an hour, observing it from every angle, thinking of the beautiful gardens and woods of her home in Coimbra, thinking of the tempestuous age in which she lived, and thinking how, a thousand years later, the story of this woman and her love still inspire plays, songs, poetry and films — there is nothing as enduring as a powerful love story, and even when the end is brutal, the desire to recount a story of true love is one that is shared generation by generation, passing down year after year, leaving a young prince and his beloved immortal, a millennia after they were laid to rest in their radiant sarcophagi. Beautiful. Eternal. Together.