Azulejos: A Brief History of Portuguese Tiles

portuguese four-panel azulejo tile screen, late 17th century Portuguese Four-Panel Azulejo Tile Screen. Sold for $21,000 USD via Heritage Auctions (December 2021).

When visiting Portugal  — particularly its capital, Lisbon — glazed ceramic tiles are a common sight. They adorn buildings, both inside and out, adding intrigue, shimmer and variety.

This decorative art form, traditionally comprising small glazed tiles is called “azulejos,” derived from the Arabic word الزليج (“al zulaycha”), meaning “small polished stones.” Dating back to the 13th century, the first Portuguese art comprising ceramic tiles appeared shortly after the Moors invaded Portugal, bringing their culture with them. Today painted azulejos that depict scenes and narratives are often installed on benches, train stations, the interiors of churches, sidewalks, and houses. This article will provide a comprehensive overview of how azulejos have evolved over the centuries. 

Understanding the Origin of Azulejos

alicatados, small mosaic pieces glazed white, black, green and honey-brown arranged in a geometrical pattern of abutting triangles

Alicatados – Colored Tiles Cut Into Geometric Patterns. Sold for £3,000 GBP via Sotheby’s (October 2004).

Azulejos originate from Moorish culture. The artistic style spread across Portugal after the Moors invaded the country in 711 AD. They began in a simpler form known as “alicatados” — colored tiles cut into geometric patterns that can be found across traditional Arabic art and architecture.

While initial azulejos techniques were simplistic, they would develop more from the 13th through 15th centuries. During this period, the Spanish city of Seville became a significant center for ceramic tile art. As the style developed, tile artists began to create multi-color variations that often depicted militaristic or religious themes. 

Tiles from the Palácio Nacional de Sintra (the same tile pattern was employed in the Casa da Música).

Simple geometric tiles from the Palácio Nacional de Sintra (the same tile pattern was employed in the Casa da Música). Image courtesy of Bobo Boom via Flickr.

It wasn’t until the 16th century that Azulejo tiles became a more notable fixture in Portuguese culture. After visiting the Spanish city of Sevilla and Granada’s Alhambra Palace in the south of Spain, King Manuel I of Portugal was impressed with the intricate tile designs that he saw. He used his wealth to import azulejos to his palace in Sintra, a Portuguese municipality northwest of Lisbon. Thereafter, ceramic tile art rapidly grew in popularity, with influential members of the monarchy and the church commissioning pieces. 

Growing Innovation Among Azulejos

figura de convite, portuguese tiles

Figura de convite. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Although azulejos originated from Moorish culture, the liberation of Spanish and Portuguese territories during the Reconquista (8th century – 1492) led to innovation. No longer prohibited from depicting human figures by Islamic law, Portuguese tilers began to decorate their tiles with people, animals, religious imagery, and cultural events. 

As the 16th century progressed, this freedom of expression drew Italian and Flemish artists to Lisbon. These artists infused their own techniques into the crafting of azulejos. For example, through the Italian technique “majolica,” Portuguese azulejos artists painted directly on the tiles to create more complex designs. 

Continued innovation and interest in azulejos led to the “Golden Age of Azulejos” in the mid-17th and early 18th centuries. Demand for ceramic tile art peaked especially strongly after a 1755 earthquake in Lisbon required much rebuilding. Azulejos proved key to this rebuilding, proving relatively durable and more cost-effective than materials like stone or marble, all the while still being highly decorative. 

During the Golden Age of Azulejos, several notable tile artists advanced their crafts. For example, Master P.M.P., an artist known only by this name, invented the technique of “figura de convite,” or “invitation figures.” Through this approach, tilers created life-size cut-out tile panels and placed them in building entryways to greet guests.  

Blue and White in Portuguese Tiles

The colors found in the first azulejos included blue, yellow, green, and white. During the Age of Discoveries (15th – 18th centuries), this shifted, and Portuguese tile art began featuring predominantly blues and whites in painted scenes. The import of Chinese porcelain and Dutch Delftware (ceramics made in the Netherlands) may have influenced this shift. In fact, Portuguese nobility so highly demanded Dutch tiles that the government implemented an import ban to support local artisans. If you visit Portugal today, however, you will see tiles of all colors. 

The Pombaline Style

After the 1755 earthquake, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the first Marquis of Pombal, led rebuilding efforts. This resulted in the creation of the “azulejos pombalinos,” featured in the “Pombaline” architectural style. Pombaline architecture was crucially designed to “shake but not fall” to help Lisbon residents withstand future earthquakes, featuring a flexible wooden structure and limited height, among common factors. Builders used Azulejos Pombalinos, typically painted with blue and white Rococo and Baroque-inspired details, to complete the facades of these new buildings. These are often viewed as an aesthetic expression of Lisbon’s rebirth after the earthquake.

Buildings from the Baixa area of Lisbon, where the Pombal style is particularly prevalent.

Buildings from the Baixa area of Lisbon, where the Pombaline style is particularly prevalent. Image courtesy of Axel Drainville via Flickr.

Where to see the most famous azulejos

The trend of decorating exterior structures with Azulejos has continued into the present day, with several older buildings being updated with decorative art pieces. Portuguese cathedrals and churches also often include azulejos on both their internal and external walls. Additionally, transit stations and park benches often include traditional tile art to showcase Portuguese history and culture. While many azulejos have been created through the centuries, certain works in Portugal are more notable than others. Here’s where you can see them when you visit the country.

1. São Bento Railway Station

porto's são bento train station hall, porto, portugal, portuguese tiles, azulejos

Azulejos – Porto’s São Bento Train Station Hall, Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The São Bento Railway Station, located in Porto, Portugal, abounds with blue and white ceramic tiles. Its internal walls are adorned with over 20,000 azulejos tiles that the artist Jorge Colaço placed over 11 years from 1905 to 1916. Each ceramic tile he laid down continued a retelling of Portugal’s history, depicting past royalty, wars, and transportation. Due to its cultural importance, the station has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Monument of Portugal.

2. Porto Cathedral

porto cathedral, portuguese tiles, azulejos

Azulejos – Porto Cathedral, Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Construction on the Porto Cathedral, one of the city’s oldest monuments, started in the 12th century. Between 1729 to 1731, artist Valentim de Almeida decorated the cloister walls with baroque azulejos. These tiles depict the life of the Virgin Mary and scenes from Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.”   

capela de almas, renovated church with portuguese tiles, azulejos

Azulejos – Capela de Almas, Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

3. Capela de Almas

Also known as the Chapel of Santa Catarina, this Porto tourist hotspot underwent significant changes once the Brotherhood of Souls obtained it. This group renovated the church in 1801, and in 1929, Eduardo Leite decorated the exterior walls with azulejos. The decorated facade comprises 15,947 tiles depicting different religious stories, such as the mаrtyrdоm оf Sаint Саthеrinе and the dеаth оf Sаint Frаnсis оf Аssisi.

4. Igreja do Carmo

igreja do carmo, portuguese tiles, azulejos

Azulejos – Igreja do Carmo, Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This location comprises half of a two-location religious site in Porto — the other half is the Igreja dos Carmelitas. The latter building was constructed first, in the mid-17th century, while the Igreja do Carmo was built between 1756 and 1768, around a century later. In 1912, tile artist Silvestro Silvestri created azulejos that were added to the Igreja do Carmo exterior. His artworks portray the founding of Mount Carmel and the Carmelite Order.

5. Casa Da Música

casa da musica, portuguese tiles, azulejos

Azulejos – Casa da Musica, Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Casa Da Música is a concert hall envisioned by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and built from 1999 to 2005. Inside its contemporary exterior — the building is shaped like an asymmetrical polyhedron, in sharp contrast with the more traditional architecture surrounding it — lie azulejos. You can find these tiles in the VIP room, in which the ceiling is decorated with azulejos depicting stories from both Dutch and Portuguese culture.

The lasting influence of azulejos 

From azulejos’ roots in the Moors’ invasion of Portugal to their abundance in the country’s present-day architecture, these tiles have remained a Portuguese fixture. They decorate the interior and exterior of homes, businesses, and chapels, their beautiful art drawing the eye across the country. The most famous tile art pieces chronicle crucial moments in Portugal’s past. Azulejos are part of both the country’s modern facade and its rich history.