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Azulejos - A Moorish Contribution To The Beautification Of Portugal

posted on: Dec 2, 2015

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

What I remember most from my first journey to Portugal in the early 1960s are the seductive open-air displays of azulejos (ornamental tiles), which I saw everywhere I turned. On the walls of churches, palaces, homes, country mansions, train stations and countless other structures, these highly decorated tiles seemed to bring out the beauty of every structure on which they were added. Their seductive attraction has for centuries intrigued and captivated the most callous of building experts.

A favourite form of Portuguese architectural decoration, they are used more extensively in that country than in any other place in the world. With their geometric patterns of relief, these eye-catching tiles are one of the most enjoyable and unique facets of Portugal’s artistic heritage – synonymous with all facets of Portuguese life. From the country’s north to the south, the attractive tiled walls one sees in every city and village appear to be tailor-made to harmonize perfectly with Portugal’s richly styled Baroque and Manueline architecture.

The tradition of utilizing the vivacious coloured azulejos, derived from the Arabic name al-zulayj, which itself comes from Persian, can be traced to the presence of the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula. When the Moors were expelled from Portugal, these ornamental tiles were imported from southern Spain where they were still being made by Muslim craftsmen. It was to be many years before they began to have a unique Portuguese character.

The best way to get a feel of the evolvement of azulejos in Portugal is to visit the Royal Palace in the resort town of Sintra, some 32 km (20 MI) west of Lisbon. Wandering around the different rooms and halls of the palace, visitors will have a chance to become acquainted with the development of azulejos art.

Here, one can see three types of ancient tiles: alicatados, glazed cut tiles; corda seca, tiles made according to the dry rope method; and aresta, those manufactured by the edging technique. These procedures succeeded each other before being replaced in the 16th century by the smooth surface majolica tiles.

Around the mid-16th century, the majolica azulejos system, introduced from Italy, was being used extensively in the manufacture of Portuguese tiles. It represented a major breakthrough from the figurative Mudejar decoration, differing completely from the geometrical tradition of the Hispano-Arabic style. The relief patterns were eventually eliminated and the tiles became flat in the style of Italian majolica. They were given a white tin glaze on which the designs were painted in metallic colours.

At the beginning of the 17th century, when the Moors were finally expelled from Spain, the Portuguese established azulejo factories and began to produce their own decorative motifs. The tiles were manufactured mostly in solid blocks of dark blue or green, arranged in simple, but ornate geometric patterns. Some in blue and yellow imitated textiles; others called azulejos de tapete (carpet tiles), duplicated Moorish rugs.

During the 18th century, the golden age of Portuguese azulejos, the tiles began to feature animals, castles, flowers, humans, religious vistas and ships. Many of the scenes they featured were those found on tapestries. The majority was religious in nature, illustrating Biblical scenes; others duplicated mythological or profane spectacles. A good number were inspired by everyday social life while others duplicated fairytale fantasies. At times, they covered whole walls, achieving monumental effects.

Around the 18th century, Dutch influence in Portuguese tile-making was becoming evident. The blue and white earthenware tiles, manufactured in Delft, Holland, were originally copied from the colours of Chinese porcelain. The style found favor among the people in Portugal and men were sent to The Netherlands to learn the trade. The design was so admired that the Portuguese to this day still employ this method in producing a good amount of their tiles.

Production on a large scale in a great variety of patterns began with the establishment by King José I in 1767 of the Royal Manufactory at Lisbon. Thereafter, the employment of azulejos for decoration mushroomed throughout the country. Besides public and religious buildings, fountains, park and street benches and most rooms in well-to-do homes were embellished by this legacy of the Moors. The fresh and trim appearance they gave a structure made azulejos much sought after in the embellishment of all types of buildings.

For centuries, azulejos have been a part of the Portuguese exterior and interior environments. The country’s treasure par-excellence, they are a vital expression of the art of the people, surpassing Spanish azulejos in originality and use. Oozing with a beguiling aura of breathtaking beauty, they represent the very soul of the country.

Today, all over Portugal, azulejos are sold in a wide range of colours and design. Some patterns are purely geometric; others are painted with scenes from everyday life. A good number of tile panels cover the entire facades of churches and public buildings; smaller ones are garden centre pieces or religious pictures. Because of the availability of these Portuguese architectural decorations, they are widely sold at reasonable prices – even antique azulejos are not expensive. A good number of manufacturers reproduce of old designs, mostly for the tourist trade and export to other countries.

For visitors, a good sample of the range and variety of historic Portuguese azulejos is found in Lisbon’s Azulejos Museum, which includes the tiled Madre de Deus Convent, featuring a priceless blue and white mural depicting a panoramic view of Lisbon before the devastating 1755 earthquake; the walls and cloisters of the old Augustinian house of Sâo Vincente de Fora; and Fronteira Palace on the outskirts of Lisbon.

Outside the city, the Islamic tiles on the walls and floors of the National Palace and the Pena Castle in Sintra, the Church of Nossa Senhora do Pópulo in Caldas da Rainha, the Church of the Misericórdia in Vila do Conde and many other structures throughout the country incorporate a fine selection of Portugal’s tile-work, enkindled by the Moors.

Unlike Spain, few Moorish structures in Portugal survived the Reconquista, but Moorish inspired colourful azulejos, which cover the many façades, ceilings and thresholds throughout the country, are a tribute to the Arab contribution to Portuguese life. Everywhere, one looks, a visitor sees the influence of the Moors. In addition to murals, small floral panels or single Dutch style tiles are found with charming motifs such as animals and birds, the life of saints or an episode in history.

Azulejos have come a long way from the time the Moors introduced them into the Iberian Peninsula. Yet, even though most are now produced with new industrial techniques, some are still hand-made. Clay is cut into tile shape, then dried and fired at 900 degrees C. They are then hand-painted. The result is an exquisite work of art – a source of pride and part of Portugal’s national heritage.