Portugal’s Love Affair With Tiles and the Museu Nacional do Azulejo

Landmark Green Tile Building, Lagos

You don’t have to be in Portugal long before you notice the colorful, hand-painted tiled plaques on building walls, tiled murals randomly placed here and there as you enter a village and tiles covering the facades of whole buildings. You’ll find tiles inside and out decorating humble homes, large homes, churches, cathedrals, grand palaces and train stations.

 

Peacock Building, Lisbon

 

Old Train Station, Lagos

Named azulejos (our mangled pronunciation sounds something like “a zu lay zhosh”) the tiles are a unique part of Portugal’s artistic heritage. Originating in Persia and adopted by the Moors, the azulejos spread to southern Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese adopted painting on ceramic tile as their national art with many artists preferring tile over canvas, painting religious images and historical scenes as well as vivid, decorative patterns. Inspired by many cultures including Asian, Arabic, Italian, Flemish, Spanish and Dutch, the styles also vary from Baroque to Art Nouveau to contemporary and range from simple, repeating patterns to massively complex and sophisticated murals of fine art.

 

Museo de Azulejo, Lisbon

For those of us honing our appreciation for all things tiled, there’s no better place to learn more about Portugal’s love affair with the azulejos than the National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) located in Lisbon.  It’s worth the trip alone to see the 16th century building, the Convent of Madre de Deus, which is deceptively modest from the outside and a jaw-dropping example of Baroque architecture and decoration inside.  Important paintings, lavishly gilded alters – and any other surfaces that might have once made the mistake of being plain – relics from the virgin martyrs and of course, the azulejos – all compete for your attention.

 

Church of Madre de Deus (left) and Chapel of St. Anthony

The museum is spread out among the convent’s three floors (there’s a lift too) and set around a courtyard.  Since it was way past lunchtime for us, our first stop on the ground floor was in the café where we had a very inexpensive (less than €5 each) sandwich and coffee in the convent’s former kitchens.  While we scarfed down savored our tasty lunches, we admired the walls around the café which still retain their original 19th century tiles.

 

 

From there, we spent a few fascinating hours learning about the origins of Portugal’s unique artistic heritage and admiring the enormously impressive collection which dates from the 15th century to the present day.

 

 

 

It would be hard for us to pick favorites out of the many tiled murals we saw but, after all the solemn religious art and oohing and ahhing about the sheer magnificence of the tiles, we were ready for a couple of laughs and to speculate about the backstory behind these two tile murals.

 

Social satire? – 1720

 

The Marriage of the Hen – by Singerie, 1660-1667 (A political lampoon?)

And we couldn’t help but wonder if this old saint was flashing us the peace sign.

 

 

Despite its somewhat out-of-the-way location, a visit to the National Tile Museum should be on your list of must-sees whenever you find yourself in Lisbon.  It’s probably safe to say it’s one of the most important museums in the country and a visit will give you some insight into the historical and cultural significance of Portugal’s love affair with the azulejos.  The Portuguese are justifiably proud of their unique artistic heritage and we love being reminded of it whenever we happen upon it in this amazing country.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

68 comments

  • I have always wanted to go to the National Azulejo Museum but the only time we seem to go to Lisbon is for the airport. I love the photos… I feel inspired!

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  • Just arrived back in Medellin from the states and saw this post. Great stuff, as usual. Gotta love the early shot (pun intended) of the early proctologist, or whatever he is. Funny.

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    • Great pun! Along with “The Marriage of the Hen” (also called the “Wedding of the Chicken”) it was fun to speculate about the story behind the art and wonder if they were social or political satire. The humor made the past come alive for us and reminded us that, even with many generations separating us, we still have much in common!

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  • The green tile building is beautiful. I wonder how many “Easter Eggs” are hidden around by the artists. Hundred year old jokes have to be in there somewhere.

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    • The green tile building in Lagos is one of our favorites and we agree with you that it really is beautiful. I especially love the complimentary floral design near the roof that runs as a border and perfectly accents the tiles. And, isn’t it fun to see that so many of the artists from centuries ago included jokes that we can still laugh at today?

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  • Yes they definitely love their tiles, brightens the architecture beautifully! Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  • We TOTALLY flipped over this museum. Such a stellar standout! Thanks for bringing it all back to me! Seems we both found the “butt shot” tile!

    http://www.greenglobaltrek.com/2015/03/lisbon-hommage-to-the-azulejo-ceramic-tile-culture.html

    Peta

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    • We really loved seeing some of the humor in these old murals which made the artists and people seem more relatable and real somehow. It seemed as though sharing a laugh centuries later was a great bridge across cultures. Thanks for sharing your post with us too, Peta. Fun to see some photos of other tiles and it looks like your enjoyed the museum as much as we did!

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  • Anita, as you may have gathered from my previous comments, I love tile-work. And I’m with you, it’s hard to pick a favorite here. My time in the Netherlands gave me an appreciation for the typical blue/white Delft style, but then again the photo of the wall mural that looks like a Persian rug is lovely as well. And the tiled staircases – fabulous. One thing that I’ve always wanted, but never been able to pull off, is a very small and very private, Spanish-style courtyard with a wall fountain which has a beautiful tile background. Great post, and as always, great art. ~James

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    • I grew up loving my grandmother’s Delft pieces so I’m partial to the blue and white tiles but, oh wow, all the other colors, patterns and styles have me dazzled as well! Like you, a private courtyard with tiles galore, a fountain (and let’s add a dipping pool too!) would be in our dream house. In fact, we were very tempted at the start of our travels to buy a colonial home in Merida, Mexico and just plunk ourselves down in our private oasis!

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  • I remember that beautiful green building in your first photo. The tile museum was a favorite of mine. It was a bit difficult to find, so worth the effort. I swear I even took some of these photographs! 🙂

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    • We’d read that the museum was a bit tricky to find and, since we were in Lisbon for only an overnight stay that trip to catch a flight the next day, we splurged a bit and took a taxi. (BTW – the fare was quite reasonable.) I’m not surprised we took some of the same photos, Nancie as there were many tiles that were standouts. However, it was a little difficult for us to pick and choose our favorites to include in this post!

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  • I love painted tiles and finding the really ‘pretty’ and/or artsy ones in Greece has been difficult. I know the next time we get anywhere near this Museum we will make it a point to visit. Lucky you, being surrounded by such beauty!

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    • Well Jackie, here’s your excuse to head our way one of these days! I think we’ve both ended up in amazing places (I almost drool over some of your pictures and descriptions) and I’d love to share our finds with you. And you could load up on Portuguese tiles to use in projects for your “Stone House on the Hill” in Greece. One of these days our paths will cross.🙂

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  • Fascinating! Loved the pictorial tour and understood how a little bit of this Portugese tradition lives on in our own country in Goa.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment and for your kind words. Those Portuguese explorers really got around, didn’t they? Goa has long been on our list of countries to see for its beauty and coast but it would be fascinating to see the Portuguese influence and traditions in this area of the world. It would be fun to learn some of Goa’s history too!

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  • Elizabeth R Rose

    I’ve always loved tiles and pottery. What great photos!

    Liked by 2 people

  • Another place to add to our list! Love those beautifully colored tiles. You have a remarkable way of telling the history of an area. Great post!

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    • Thanks LuAnn. We know you won’t have any problem filling up your days when you visit Portugal! As you know, we love learning about the history of places we visit and Lisbon’s history has so many layers we know we’ll have a wealth of future posts to write with each visit. And when pictures tell the story, the writing is easy as well as fun!

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  • Every time I read one of your posts about Portugal I get another reminder that I HAVE to visit. I had no idea that tiles were so popular in Lisbon. I’d definitely visit the museum as they remind me of the tapestries in France!

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    • Yes, Jan, you do have to visit! (Although I say that we need to visit France every time I read one of your posts – you make it sound so tempting!) The endless places to go in Europe are one of the main reasons we decided to move here. It’s a great luxury to have plenty of time to explore different cities in Portugal and other countries and we’re taking advantage of it!

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  • Those blue, yellow, and white tiles are all over! Lucky for us because that’s our fave color combination. Oh we would definitely visit with a month in Portugal next year!

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    • I agree that blue-white and yellow are a beautiful combination and favorites of ours too. You’ll find some tiles in Albufeira when you visit next winter as well as the many villages when you explore the Algarve. And, as you pointed out, you’ll have plenty of time to visit Lisbon and see the Tile Museum for yourself. Looking forward to finally meeting you face to face!

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  • I love the tile work and often find myself seeking them out on travels. Even sidewalk tiles in Portugal are beautiful. The Spanish ones are similar which makes sense. We didn’t get to the museum on our visit to Lisbon. Next time😀

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    • We loved the tiles in Spain and never tire of looking for the murals and tiles in either Portugal or Spain. With their origins rooted in the same cultures it’s no wonder that there are some similarities. I like hearing the “next time” Kemi. We’ll have to make some plans to meet you in Lisbon or even look for a new city to explore (maybe this fall when Anne and Tim return?) More fun ahead!

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  • We visited the tile museum in Lisbon on a river cruise and your wonderful photos made the memories vivid again! Makes me yearn for a return to Portugal!

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  • Portugal is one of our favourite countries. I love the tiles.

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  • Lovely post! The National Tile Museum is one of my favorite places in Lisbon…it’s a great place to get a sense of the glory of azulejo art before the earthquake that leveled the city. Learning the stories told in tiles definitely adds to a visitor’s understanding of the Portugal.

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    • Thanks Anita! I was wondering it you’d seen the Tile Museum and where it ranked on your “Things to Do in Lisbon” list. Sounds like you love it as much as we do! It will definitely be on our list for a return trip to show off to friends too. And isn’t the mural of Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake impressive? A lovely piece of historical art that tells a fascinating story.

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  • The tiles are extraordinary, aren’t they? I’m surprised I didn’t walk in to a few walls while we were in Porto because I always seemed to looking everywhere but where I was walking! What stands out in my mind is the train station in Porto, the tile murals were just stunning. It won’t be too much longer before we’ll be back!

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    • Can you believe we have yet to make it to Porto, Patti? I keep seeing photos of the tile murals there and saying soon but it’s still on our bucket list. Maybe this fall we’ll have to tag team and take a road trip there. You can show us your favorites (the train station will be a definite must) while I alert you to wall dangers! 😁

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  • We were there! It was an incredible museum and the place where my fascination with tiles began. In fact, after the museum visit, I began to collect small shards of tile laying around on the streets and trails throughout Portugal. When we returned to the states, I made a small mosaic with the tiles as a rememberance of Portugal. Thanks for the memories, Anita.

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  • So beautiful! I’ll definitely make a note of the museum. The social satire scene is truly bizarre. I love the look on the saint’s face, and the beautiful designs in the picture with the table. And the peacock building!
    Alison

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    • We had a hard time trying to figure out the scene where they were poking the poor gent with the huge syringe. We had to google our facts but the first hypodermic needles weren’t made until the mid-19th century so your guess is as good as mine … bizarre works! 😁 And isn’t that peacock building amazing? I have no doubt, Alison that you would really love this museum!

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  • Oh the tile photos are so beautiful! It would be so hard to pick a favorite. Are most of Portugal’s tiles blue, green and yellow or do they run the gamut?

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  • Fascinating, as ever. I mean, who doesn’t adore such tiles? Indeed, I have a single pic of a tile (depicting I believe, the visitation of the Virgin to the children at Fatima) that I long-ago snapped on the island of Terciera in the Azores – the one and only place I’ve been in Portugal!

    Your posts always intrigue Anita, and often send me off on a Google tangent of some sort. This post – sent me to Googling on that tile depicting the “peace sign”. Turns out that it was originally a Roman gesture of “speaking”, that later was adopted as a Christian symbol of blessing/benediction (lol, you know how those Christians love to turn pagan stuff into Christian festivals, et al) 😉 And even more interesting – the evolution of the gesture (from closed to open thumb, etc.) over the centuries:

    http://art-history.yoexpert.com/art-history-general/what-is-the-significance-of-christ-s-hand-gesture-5016.html

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    • Loved the photo you shared on Facebook of the Azores tile, Dyanne. I remember reading a story in Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember those?) about the miracle of Fatima appearing to the three children and only recently realized that it took place in Portugal. One of these days we’ll have to make the visit to see the church. Thanks too for the link on the blessing gesture! Thinking it was a peace sign had us doing a double take – haha! So glad that our posts prompt you into further reading. We while away a lot of hours falling down Google’s rabbit holes ourselves!

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  • More than anything, I enjoyed your interpretations of history 🙂 But the tile work is such an amazing characteristic of how people can love their country!

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    • You’re right Susan, that the tile work reflects Portugal’s history, religion and culture and shows so much of what their life was like over the centuries as well as what was important to them. Many times we’re guilty of thinking of people from long ago as being more somber and pious than we are so it’s really fun to see that some of the tile murals had a sense of humor that translates quite well through the centuries. We are more alike than different!

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  • The azulejos are beautiful. I love that many are not only decorative but tell a story as well. The National Tile Museum will definitely be on my list should I visit Lisbon.

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    • Donna, you’d love the museum as well as wandering about Lisbon and Porto and the villages discovering the tiles and murals for yourself. As you noted, the tiles can tell a story, act as maps, entertain, decorate and even give some insight into the culture and history from centuries past. In short, there’s something for everybody!

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  • As always, wonderful and informative post. I will look forward to seeing some of the tile work when we visit in September. It looks wonderful.
    Suzi

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  • Love it! Portugal is on my to-do list… one of these days. And those funny tiles! What a riot!

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  • Wonderful way to start my Saturday morning.Where have Anita and Richard gone today. Thanks for the tour,simply beautiful!

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  • As you know, we weren’t big fans of Lisbon – but we loved the tile museum, it (along with the Jerónimos Monastery) were our sightseeing highlights. The small church inside is gorgeous. I think anyone visiting Lisbon has to go to this museum.
    I will say however that I was surprised that southern Spain has much of the same impressive tile work. I previously thought it was strictly a Portuguese thing, but when we were in Andalusia we were just as impressed by the tilework there (as you mention at the top about the Moors and the spread through Portugal and Spain).
    Wonderful photos 🙂
    Frank (bbqboy)

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    • You’re right Frank – The Church of Madre de Deus inside the convent is over-the-top gorgeous with something to feast your eyes on no matter where you look. I know your trip to Lisbon wasn’t great but I tend to think you just picked the wrong time to visit and the wrong place to stay. Not having a comfortable or quiet place to live and raucous crowds can really influence your impressions of a city. 😕 Richard still thinks of Barcelona, Spain as no big deal (he was sick almost the whole month we were there) and was more than ready to move on while I fell head-over-heels in love with it. And you bring up a good point about southern Spain’s tiles which are different in style but totally impressive too!

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  • No one does tiles like the Portuguese. This year we will spend three weeks in Portugal travelling from Lisbon to Porto and all places in between. Thanks for the taster…

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  • I remember well the green tiled building in Lagos. The azulejos are beautiful and it is such an interesting way of telling a story and keeping it for prosperity. The Museu Nacional do Azulejo looks like a very interesting place to visit, I like many of the murals on your photos and the social satire ones made me laugh. I would like to visit this Museum when I next go to Lisbon.

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  • Loved the different tiles. wish I can have some 🙂

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