Portuguese azulejos: a popular decorative art and the symbol of a nation

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Katerina Bulovska
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Throughout history, Portuguese architecture followed contemporary popular style, from Baroque to Renaissance and Neoclassicism, even developing its own unique style called Manueline. However, throughout these ever-changing architectural elements, one, in particular, remained in constant use, both for decorative purpose and as a construction material: the azulejos.

For centuries, the colorful glazed ceramic tiles have been one of the most characteristic artistic expressions in Portugal and are a recurring and distinctive element in Portuguese architecture. However, they are not a Portuguese invention, but an Islamic traditional art brought to Portugal by the Arabs during the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The ceramic tiles were popularized in Portugal thanks to the Portuguese King Manuel I, who, impressed by their beauty, decided to incorporate them into his palace in Sintra. He set a new trend and azulejos quickly began spreading all over the country. Ever since, azulejos have held a prominent place in Portuguese culture.

The Portuguese did make some alterations to the traditional Islamic art form. Arab azulejos are typified by colorful geometric designs, as many sects of Islam teach against the depiction of human or animal forms, God, or the prophet Mohammad in any type of art or architecture. Manuel I introduced more opulent azulejo designs that still had geometric patterns but were more richly decorated. The murals in the Hall of the Arabs and the Hall of Monkeys that he built in the Palace of Sintra are a remarkable example of early decorative azulejos in Portugal.

Azulejos decoration; Palace of the Marquis of Fronteira, Lisbon. Author: bm.iphone. CC BY 2.0

The word azulejo has an Arabic origin, contrary to the general belief that it comes from the Portuguese word azul, meaning blue. This confusion probably stems from the well known blue and white tile designs that were popular in the 18th century. Azulejo is derived from the word az-zulayj, which translates as small polished stone.

Azulejos. Author: François Philipp. CC BY 2.0

In the 17th century, the most famous white and blue azulejos were created. The colors were influenced by imported Chinese porcelain, and the geometrical patterns once used were now replaced with Biblical scenes and stories from Portugal’s Age of Discovery.

Azulejos in Nazaré, Portugal. Author: Joergsam. CC BY-SA 3.0

For instance, the Lisbon church Madre de Deus still has beautiful white and blue murals that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries and were rescued from a terrible earthquake in 1755. They narrate the life story of Santa Clara, the biblical story of God speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, and the life and works of St. Francis of Assisi.

Azulejos in Faro Cathedral, Portugal. Author: Enric Rubio Ros. CC BY 2.0

Despite the influences of the Moors, the Dutch, the Italians, and the Spaniards, Portuguese azulejos maintained a distinctive style and the 18th century was their Golden Age. It was the period of colonial expansion in Portugal; gold and precious jewels were imported from Brazil, China, and India, making Portugal an enormously wealthy kingdom.

Azulejo facade of Carmo Church in Porto, Portugal. Author: Güldem Üstün. CC BY 2.0

During this time, powerful and wealthy aristocrats were building new luxurious palaces, churches, and monasteries, whose interiors and facades were decorated with Portuguese azulejos. Besides the popular white and blue, green and yellow were also commonly used, while red was not seen in Portuguese azulejos until the 19th century.

Azulejos in Rococo style in the Palace of Queluz, Portugal. Author: User: Lusitana. CC BY 2.5

With mass production in the 19th century, the decorative ceramic tiles remained popular due to their beauty and became more widespread because of the lowered cost of tiles. The 20th century welcomed modern projects by some of the most prominent names in modern Portuguese azulejo design, such as Júlio Resende, Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, and Jorge Barradas.

Adoration of the Magi, Museum of Azulejos, Lisbon. Author: SchiDD. CC BY 3.0

One of the oldest azulejo factories and stores in Portugal is Sant’Anna in Lisbon, which first opened in 1741. Sant’Anna survived the 1755 earthquake, and today is open to visitors, showing the process of making azulejos and some of the oldest Portuguese handicraft techniques.

Interior of the Porto train station, Portugal. Author: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo. CC BY 2.0

Today, the azulejo is a symbol of Portugal. The iconic ceramic tiles can be seen everywhere: on the façades of churches, grand old residences, houses, public benches, fountains, modern apartment buildings, universities, even in many of Lisbon and Porto’s Metro stations. Many remarkable azulejos dating back to the second half of the 15th century are also on display in the exhibition of the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum) in Lisbon.