Azulejos: Tiling a Nation in Portugal

EVERYWHERE you go in Portugal you cannot miss the azulejos, tiles with different motifs using different techniques forming part of the country’s architecture. These are seen in abundance in the Lisboa and surrounding towns.  Palaces, houses, churches, manors, fountains, government buildings and even train and underground stations and hospitals are adorned with this decorative tile.

The word azulejo is derived, it is thought, from the Moorish word azzelij. The azulejo, a very Portuguese word just as the present day Portuguese design, is defined as a square ceramic tile with a glazed surface on one side.  The technique and indeed the word were introduced into Portugal from Moorish Spain in the 15th century. Tiles were imported from Seville and Valencia. They also came from Italy, Holland and England but it was ceramicists from Flanders who were the main influence on the Iberian Peninsular.

Tiles were used to decorate churches, monasteries and chapels depicting religious figures and scenes. The Church of St Anthony in Estoril and the Church of Our Lady of the Navigator (N. S. de Navegantes) in the Rua dos Navegantes and Church of Assumption in Cascais show examples of these as does the Cascais Town Hall on its façade.

A treasure of azulejos can be found in Sintra’s National Palace inside its various rooms, mostly dating to the 16th century. Some of the tiles here are rare and represent some of the oldest techniques used in the country. The azulejos in the Arab Room are geometric in design. The Mermaid Room has tiles with vine leaf motifs whilst the Magpie Room has star shapes and the Swan Room has tiles with diagonal designs.

In Lisboa the Palácio dos Marqueses da Fronteira is rich in tiles and here we see panels of hunting, mythological and battle scenes.  In Oeiras the Palácio do Marquês de Pombal shows the white and blue tiles which are traditional to Portugal, depicting mythological scenes, dating from 1760 to 1770. The National Palace in Queluz holds more tiles.

For the enthusiast Lisboa’s National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) in Rua Madre de Deus displays a wide selection, from the first types produced in this country to tiles brought from other countries and also more recent tiles such as the panel by Vieira da Silva.





The Museum is housed in the former Convent of Madre de Deus, which was built by Queen Leonor (1458 to 1525). However, it was not until 1980 that it actually became the National Tile Museum. João Miguel dos Santos Simões (1907-1972), an assistant curator of the Museum of Ancient Art and later in charge of the Tile Museum, was an authority on azulejos, and had done extensive research with many articles and books published on the subject. One part of the Tile Museum is dedicated to his work.

The Retable of Our Lady of Life (Nossa Senhora da Vida) by Marçal de Matos c. 1580 is a panel which consists of 1,384 tiles measuring 5 metres by 4.65 metres. It came from the former Church of St. Andrew in Lisbon and depicts St Luke, Adoration of Shepherds and the Annunciation.

There is still a demand for azulejos as it is part of the architecture with every commercial establishment and house having a use for them. Some factories located around the country produce handpainted tiles and the Fabrica Ceramica Viuva do Lamego in Abrunheira, Sintra area, is one of them.

Pat Rodrigues