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 in 1755 means the work wraps around the entire room.
Step up close to examine the 280-year-old brush stroke details, and appreciation for the piece shifts. Rather than spanning a single enormous canvas or sheet of paper, the complex scene, widely attributed to Spanish artist Gabriel del Barco, plays out across 75 feet of ceramic tiles painstakingly fitted together to form an elaborate mosaic.
The glazed ceramic tilework, known as azulejo, is prominent across the interiors and exteriors of Portugal, and this example is a featured display at the 9,800-square-foot museum in Lisbon devoted to telling the complex backstory behind the art form. A sign near the museum’s entryway refers to the tilework as “an identity art” of distinct “Portuguese taste.”
In other words, to get a real sense of the azulejo tradition is to get a real sense of Portugal.
The term azulejo comes from the Arabic word azzelij, meaning “little polished stone.” The tilework dates back to the 13th century, in the period just after the Moors invaded Portugal and brought parts of their culture to their invaded lands. But it wasn’t until the 16th century that azulejos became a more popular fixture in Portugal. At that time, powerful leaders in the monarchy or church commissioned the mosaics, and production started to take place in-country.
Today, the materials, especially the distinctive blue ink used on the tiles, tend to be sourced from factories in Portugal, and are not readily available elsewhere. First, the tiles are baked in an oven. Then, an artist spreads each individual glaze color (yellow and green are also common)—made from potent ink diluted with just the right amount of water—over a compact powder on the surface of the tile. Once the glaze is applied, each tile is refired in an ultrahot oven that often exceeds 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s this glazing process that makes the tiles particularly resilient, and resistant to elements like rain, sun and fire. That’s also when the true hues reveal themselves and shine.
Ever since the 16th century, the glazed tilework has been a steady—but ever-changing—presence, covering entire walls of churches and palaces, and spanning swaths of neighborhoods’ facades. A stroll on the streets of Lisbon, particularly in the city’s Alfama neighborhood, allows anyone to marvel at azulejos. Porto, nearly 200 miles to the north, is essentially an open-air museum for the tiles.
“One of the first things to notice is the monumental size of the places with coverings of azulejos,” says Alexandre Pais, the director of the National Azulejo Museum. “This sense of monumentality is something that is very specific to Portugal.”
For instance, Porto’s São Bento Railway Station is filled with murals made up of more than 20,000 azulejo tiles, all designed and painted by artist Jorge Colaço in the 1930s. 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.
Other countries certainly use ceramic tiles to decorate walls and buildings, Pais adds, but not to the same extent and in the same deliberate way as in his home country.
To the untrained eye, azulejos might just seem like geometric shapes and swirling designs assembled and placed onto any old building to decorate an otherwise blank space. But the mosaics are created specifically for the architecture, so, Pais explains, the work’s setting is as critical as the design elements displayed on the tiles.
“These patterns have meaning, and the meaning is adjusted to the specific place,” he says. “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. 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, far from random decorative pieces, are pivotal to reminding worshippers why they are gathered.
The other major difference between Portuguese azulejos and other countries’ tilework, Pais says, is that “we 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 knotwork. Then, in the 16th century, when Portuguese leaders began to commission tileworks and the production of azulejos was localized, “a sense of scenography” took hold, Pais says.
The debut of dynamic patterns featuring flowers, dolphins and cherubs was a major development during the 17th century. Just this month, the museum director was summoned to a small Portuguese town called Torres Novas to check out a new pattern—the first to combine figurative and coat of arms motifs into a single design—that was uncovered from that era. “We are always being surprised with this kind of creation,” he says.
As time went on, narrative scenes, often from mythology or the Bible, dominated the azulejo imagery, turning tiled spaces into visual storybooks of fishermen at sea, weapon-heavy wartime sieges and even celebratory gatherings.
One stunning example is the Fronteira Palace, located just outside of Lisbon’s city center. The palace’s Battle Room, with its intricate scenes from the 17th-century Portuguese Restoration War for independence from Spain, has been called the “Sistine Chapel of Tile Panels.”
Eventually, azulejos were applied to the facades of buildings, especially in Lisbon, as a more manageable, less expensive way of rebuilding the city infrastructure after its infamous earthquake. “The landscape of the city became almost like a theatrical set,” says Pais. The artistry, he adds, provided a sense of hope in a time of recovery and growth.
Even recently, azulejo usage has evolved to fit the times. During the 20th century, contemporary artists began creating original tilework installations in public settings. Train stations, libraries and concert halls have become canvases. Beginning in the 1950s, artist Maria Keil was the creative force behind azulejos in 19 of Lisbon’s Metro stations. The Oriente station features a wild aquatic world of mermaids and sharks while the Olivais station stays true to its name with a tile homage to olive trees.
“In Portugal, it’s less common to have big sculptures in the center of the square like in Italy or France,” Pais says. “But what we have is walls covered by azulejos, so azulejos become a vehicle, a medium for contemporary artists to express their individuality.”
Lately, new forms of tiled artwork are taking shape. Artists are pixelating images to then transform into azulejo murals, with examples on display at the National Azulejo Museum created from computer images. Graffiti artists, such as Diogo Machado (who goes by the moniker Add Fuel), are unexpectedly working in the azulejo aesthetic, and entire neighborhoods are coming together under the guidance of professional artists to collaborate on community panels that fit their localities.
“There’s always this reinvention,” says Pais.
Just as a visit to the country is incomplete without sampling sardines, pastel de nata pastries or port wine, seeking out—and even trying your hand at painting—the famed azulejos is a uniquely Portuguese experience.
Here are five places to see the art form:
Monastery of São Vicente de Fora
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. Thirty-eight tiled panels depict the satirical and whimsical fables of French poet Jean de La Fontaine. His fable “The Bear and the Man Who Loved Gardens,” for instance, follows a lonely bear and lonely man who strike up such a strong friendship that the bear swats flies off of his human friend’s face when he falls asleep in the garden.
National Palace of Sintra
Legend has it that Manuel I of Portugal, who ruled as king from 1495 to 1521, visited Seville, Spain and became enamored with the Royal Alcazar, so much so that he wanted his own equivalent palace. The result is the azulejo-embellished palace that resides in Sintra, just 30 minutes outside of Lisbon. The palace’s Heraldic Hall is a highlight, with a coat of arms emblazoned in gold and tiled panels portraying nobles as well as stag- and bear-hunting scenes.
Sé Velha (the Old Cathedral in Coimbra)
Built in the 12th century, when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal, this Romanesque cathedral resembles a fortress. Inside, decorations include sculptures of animals and examples of quintessential 16th-century azulejos, Pais says. 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 worth seeing.
National Azulejo Museum
Housed in a former convent that dates back to 1509, the four-decade-old museum has one of the most sizable ceramic collections in the world. The exhibits within the historic building are set up chronologically and arranged with samples of work from each era of azulejos. The museum also hosts a limited number of reservation-only classes for those eager to learn the art of painting tiles.
Artist Caroline Vidal’s studio
Lisbon-based artist Caroline Vidal studied painting and ceramics and later trained to learn the art form of azulejos. Almost a decade ago, she became one of a growing number of ceramics-focused artisans who have opened up their studios to instruct locals and tourists (in her case through Airbnb Experiences, as well as to private groups through tour guides and hostels). That way not only can she impart lessons about the significance of the tilework, but also workshop participants can appreciate the skill involved in bringing them to life.
“My students say that it’s really nice to know a little more about the history of the tiles because, of course, they see them everywhere,” she says. “And instead of just buying them, they prefer to learn how to paint them. They immerse inside the culture and the techniques of the azulejos.”
In her workshops, which usually run three or four hours, Vidal provides a pretraced traditional pattern for participants to practice the technique on a first tile, before trying their hand at a freestyle design. Afterward, Vidal cooks the ceramic tiles in an oven at a temperature of almost 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit; a few days later, students can collect their finished work.
“There’s the charm of painting them, because I think that even if you’re not very good in drawing or painting, or if you never paint in your life, you will be able to do something nice if you follow the technique,” she adds.