Lisbon's Timeless Tiles

Azuleju Museum, Lisbon
ArtSmart Travels/Lisbon  by Barbara Rizza Mellin

Timeless Tiles: Lisbon’s  Azulejo 

Lisbon, Portugal (the European capital closest to the U.S.) offers travelers three cultural experiences that are worth the trip from anywhere: Caldo Verde, its famous green soup make from potatoes and kale, fado, traditional music, whose soulful sounds show Arabic influences, and azulejo, its ubiquitous glazed tiles. 

Vibrant ceramic tiles of blues, yellows, and teals adorn the façades of buildings, create wall-paper-like designs on interiors, and even decorate sidewalks and streets. You have to love the way their profusion of repeated patterns gives an elegant air to the most ordinary settings. To better understand this particular cultural attribute, I visited the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, (As-zoo-lay'-zho), the tile museum of Lisbon, which houses an extraordinary collection reflecting centuries of artistic traditions. It’s most fitting that I found this one-of-a-kind museum (at Rua da Madre de Dues no. 4) in the picturesque older section of Lisbon, near the water's edge where the great merchants of antiquity traded wares with the world. (The word Azulejo is thought to have come from the Moorish word azzelij.)

          Housed in the former Madre de Deus Convent, built by Queen Leonor (1458-1525), the museum features tiles in their original setting—decorating staircases, walls and windows— as well as a collection of historic tiles garnered from around the world. The museum also showcases changing exhibits of pottery, vases and vessels. An added attraction, among all these richly patterned ceramic masterpieces, is the convent itself, with wonderful arches, an inner courtyard, two cloisters and a ceiling-painted chapel. 

  The larger cloister contains visual explanations of various historic tile-making and decorating methods. I was fascinated to discover one early process: first ceramists created a design on paper, pinpricked the outline, and placed the paper on an unglazed tile. Then, using a soft cloth bag containing charcoal, they gently patted the stencil, allowing charcoal to transfer the design to the tile surface. Once the design could be seen, artists hand painted the pattern repeatedly with uncanny accuracy. 

Although many cultures use tiles, unique ethnic characteristics come through in the decorations. The Moorish influence on Portuguese and Spanish tiles is particularly evident as curvilinear, natural shapes intertwine to weave patterns of leaves or vine tendrils. Dutch tiles with painted scenes of places and people, sailing ships and windmills, conjure up wholly different images of place. Although the blue-on-white tiles of Delft, Holland bear a marked resemblance in color to those of Portugal, they retain a strikingly Netherlandish look. Some of my favorite tiles were the scroll-filled Florentine squares from pre-Renaissance Italy, which demonstrate their own geographic and cultural character. 

Many of the works in the Azulejo Museum record the history of Lisbon. In one room of the cloister is a large display consisting of over 1000 tiles painted by the sixteenth century artist Marcal de Matos. This elaborately decorated altar retable of Our Lady of Life (Nossa Senhora da Vida), originally embellished the Church of St. Andrew with a cohesive composition of saints, angels, and figures of the nativity. Another work, this one made up of 576 tiles, offers a captivating panoramic view of Lisbon before the devastating 1755 earthquake. Finally, there is an intriguing panel, circa 1650, taken from the ancient praia (beach) palace in Belem, the waterfront section of Lisbon. The panel's images of mythical griffins and phoenixes are set on uniformly horizontal planes, but the tiles have been crafted as parallelograms instead of rectangles, ingeniously allowing them to be placed along the rise of a stairway. 

Contemporary tile works are also included in changing  exhibits. 

If, like me, you can’t get your fill of the beautiful tiles that decorate and define Portugal, you must add The Museu National do Azulejo to your list of artful places to visit. And if you plan it right, you could grab a quick lunch of Caldo Verde before you go and visit a fado house for dinner afterwards.

All photos by Bruce A Mellin

The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin