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.
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.
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.
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.
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