When you are an avid traveler and have been to Portugal yet or already in preparation mood for your next trip to this beautiful country, then you probably have already heard of Portugal's Tile Painting History.
Portugal is known for its rich cultural heritage, charming cities and beautiful landscapes. One of its most unique and recognizable features is its tile work.
From the facades of churches and palaces to the walls of private homes, Portugal's tile art, commonly known as "azulejo", is a beautiful part of the country's history and culture.
And since we do also have two very popular Tile Painting Workshops in our Portugal Workshop Portfolio, we want to take a closer look at the fascinating history of tile painting culture in Portugal in this blog article.
What means "Azulejo"?Azulejo is a form of ceramic tile art that has been used in Portugal since the thirteenth century. This colorful, twirly style of tile painting can be found all over Portugal, from public buildings to private homes. With a wide variety of colors and patterns - mostly blue on white though - azulejo is an essential part of Portugal's cultural identity.
The term "azulejo" comes from the Arabic word azzelij. It means "little polished stone" in English. The tile work dates back to the 13th century, a period when the Moors invaded Portugal and brought parts of their culture to Portuguese territory.
It wasn’t until the 16th century though, that azulejos became a more popular thing in Portugal. At the time, leaders in the monarchy and churches commissioned the mosaics, and production started to take place within the country.
Production of "Azulejos"Today, almost all of the materials, especially the distinctive blue ink used on the tiles, are sourced from factories all over Portugal. First, the tiles are baked in an oven. Then, the ceramic artist spreads each individual glaze color (yellow and green are also popular colors)—made from ink diluted with the right amount of water—over a compact powder on the surface of the tile. Once the glaze is applied, each tile is re-fired in a very hot oven that usually exceeds 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It is this glazing process that makes the tiles particularly strong and resistant to elements like rain, sun and fire. That’s also when the true colors reveal themselves and shine.
The Origins of "Azulejo"
The origins of azulejo can be traced back to the Islamic culture of the Middle East. During the 8th and 9th centuries, the Moors brought their artistic and architectural styles to the Iberian Peninsula. They used colored ceramic tiles as decoration on their buildings. This influence can still be seen in many of Portugal's historic monuments today.
In the 13th century, King Manuel I of Portugal brought the art of azulejo to Portugal. He invited artisans from Italy to create tile installations at his own palace and other royal buildings. Soon after, the art of tile painting spread throughout Portugal, becoming a popular decorative element in both public and private architecture.
The meaning of Azulejo patterns
These patterns have meaning, and the meaning is adjusted to the specific place. In other countries, you can remove the tiles and move them from one wall or building to another without losing anything. But in Portugal, many azulejos have figurative scenes, and they tie into that place and that context.
Nowhere is this concept more apparent than in places of worship where azulejo-laden walls seem to bring biblical figures and stories to life.
The other major difference between Portuguese azulejos and other countries’ tile work is that the Portuguese are always changing and adjusting to new concepts, new ideas, according to the aspects of the culture at the time.
In the beginning, azulejos were produced outside of Portugal and tended to feature Islamic motifs like knot work. Then, in the 16th century, when Portuguese leaders began to commission tile works and the production of azulejos was localized, "a sense of scenography" took hold.
Examples of Azulejos in Portugal
Azulejos in Porto
For instance, Porto’s São Bento Railway Station is filled with murals made up of more than 20,000 azulejo tiles. They are all designed and painted by artist Jorge Colaço in the 1930's. The murals together depict key moments of Portuguese history, like its age of discovery and famous explorers.
The exterior of the Church of St. Ildefonso in Porto, another structure boasting Colaço’s work from this era, features 11,000 blue-and-white tiles.
At the Chapel of the Souls in Porto, for instance, the death of St. Francis and martyrdom of St. Catherine are immortalized through artistic tile renderings. In that sense, the azulejos remind worshippers why they gather regularly.
Azulejos in Lisbon
One impressive example is the Fronteira Palace. It is located outside of Lisbon’s city center. The palace’s Battle Room with its scenes from the 17th century Portuguese Restoration War for independence from Spain, has been called the "Sistine Chapel of Tile Panels".
Not far from the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon is this monastery and church dedicated to St. Vincent, the city’s patron saint since 1173. Inside, the cloisters are covered in the largest collection of 18th-century azulejos found anywhere.
From a few steps back, the artfully painted panorama of Lisbon at the National Azulejo Museum is an impressive sea of blue and white. Portraying every cathedral, bridge and shipyard in Portugal’s capital city as it looked just before a devastating 8.5-magnitude earthquake back in 1755, the work wraps around the entire room.
Azulejos in Coimbra
Built in the 12th century, when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal, this Romanesque cathedral resembles a fortress. Inside, decorations include 16th-century azulejos. At that time, Bishop Jorge de Almeida sponsored a major decorative campaign that led to covering the walls and columns with tiles, influenced by Arab geometric motifs. While some of the tiles have been removed over the years, what remains is definitely worth seeing.
Tile Painting Workshops in PortoWhen you are keen to meet a Portuguese ceramic and tile painting artist in person while you’re staying in Porto, then check out our Tile Painting Workshops in Porto.
Francisco Pessegueiro is a Porto tile artist and the co-founder of Frágil Studio, based in Porto. He has been learning and working in ceramic studios all over Portugal. When he returned to Porto, he started focusing on workshops of "azulejos" and ceramics and ever since has been inviting people with all ages. His intention is to spread the crafts and know-how before they are getting lost.
During his Porto Tiles and Tea Workshop you have the opportunity to first learn some of the traditional tile painting techniques and then paint your own two tiles and integrate some of the original Portuguese motives. You will also learn more about the history of Portuguese tiles.
The tiles need to be cooked after every session and are ready for pick-up 24 hours after the workshop. Please consider this with your further travel plans! If you cannot come and pick them up yourselves, the shipping prices are around 20€ to Europe and 30€ to the rest of the world per person.
For workshop bookings, click here.
Watch our subcultalk with Francisco here.
Daniela Morgada aka LUZITA has been working as a ceramist since 2019. At the time, she decided to take a ceramics course and immediately fell in love with the material and craft. Ever since she has had her own projects but it was mostly lamps that she focused on. Why? Because Daniela loves big pieces and lamps allow her that.
In 2021 she finally opened her own ceramic studio and since then she is able to host workshops, both in ceramics and tile painting. She loves having people at her studio and sharing her knowledge. Some of her students even became ceramists themselves now! This is making Daniela super-happy. :)
During Daniela's Tile Painting Workshop you learn about the history of Portuguese Tiles, how they gained their importance among the Portuguese folk, which colors were mostly used, and which were and still are today the most visited places of attraction. In the second part you can get hands-on yourself and paint your own unique tile which you can take home with you at the end of the workshop.
For bookings, click here.