Your browser (Internet Explorer {{browserVersion}}) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all the features of this and other websites.
Update my browser

Portugal's Amazing Azulejos

Azulejos aren’t just a beautiful part of Portugal’s architecture, but offer cultural and historical insights. Brian Johnston explores the art form.

They’re as Portuguese as custard tarts and just as much of a feast, if only for the eyes. Turn a street corner, step into a church or railway station and be startled and entranced by unfolding scenes in white and blue. Flowers bloom and curlicues blossom. Halberdiers stand guard and ladies in crinolines stroll. Stirring scenes from Portuguese history erupt. 

These are the azulejos, Portugal’s answer to the tapestries and frescoes of other countries – though used on both the exterior as well as interior walls of buildings. Azulejo is the Portuguese (and Spanish) word for a ceramic tile used as an architectural embellishment, though tiles often had the practical function, too, of keeping buildings cool. You’ll find azulejos on palaces, cathedrals, shopfronts, houses and schools. They might cover benches in parks and bar counters. Even the names of streets are often written on decorative ceramic tiles.

Tiles of Portugal
ben youssef madrasa door marrakesch morocco 16 9

The Portuguese are, in short, a little obsessed with this art form, perhaps because it captures so much of their culture and the multi-ethnic influences of their rich history. The word azulejo is derived from the Arabic for ‘polished stone’ and was first introduced to Spain in the 13th century via the Arab-controlled cities of Seville and Granada. The Arabs had long used small ceramic tiles for decoration in patterns that imitated the Roman and Byzantine mosaic work they encountered in their conquered territories. The geometric and floral motifs that linger on Portuguese azulejos are a reminder of their Arab heritage.

King Manuel I made a visit to Seville in 1503 and thus introduced azulejos to his Portuguese kingdom. At this time, they resembled the distinctive small tiles in browns, yellows and greens you still see today in Morocco, worked into geometric patterns. In the 16th century, however, the influence of both Italian majolica workers and the Renaissance transformed the art. Azulejo work become more colourful and less abstract, often depicting mythological scenes, biblical stories and the lives of saints.

seville plaza spain bridge tiles 16-9
cathedral in oporto blue and white tiles portugal 16 9

By the end of the 16th century, azulejos had become lavish affairs that covered entire walls, particularly in monasteries and churches. Decorative tiles were also used for interiors. If you shuffle around a Portuguese church, don’t forget to inspect the altar, as azulejos are often used for adornment instead of an altar cloth. Interestingly, the birds and flowers depicted on the tiles are thought to be Hindu in origin, inspired by the patterns on textiles imported from India.

Like painting, Portuguese tile work changed styles over the centuries as fashions rose and ebbed. If you see ‘carpet compositions’ showing saints against a patterned background of roses and camellias, and with an elaborate border, then you’re likely in a 17th-century building. If you see an eruption of flowers in vases and motifs such as birds and dolphins, the tiles are probably 18th century. The golden age of Portuguese azulejos began in the late 17th century, and that was thanks to the impact of another exotic import, blue-and-white Delft porcelain from the Netherlands. Dutch (and later local Portuguese) tile workers began producing large historical scenes in blue and white for aristocratic clients. Palaces throughout Portugal – and in its colony Brazil – were soon covered inside and out in grand historical tableaux. 

View of tiles in doorway Porto, Portugal

The form was exuberant and baroque and came to be called the Joanine style after King Joao V (1706-1750), whose reign produced many top azulejo masters. Decorative madness took over as everyone vied to display the latest bling. Baroque tiles were soon everywhere, even on outdoor staircases. The porcelain staircase in the gardens at the Palace of Mateus near Regua is wonderfully dainty, while in Lamego the monumental flight of 686 steps that leads pilgrims to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies is also decorated in gorgeous azulejo scenes. The historical scene became fixed as the predominant theme, with other minor fashions coming and going. In the mid-18th century, it was quite the thing to flank the doors of your palace with life-size tiled figures depicting guards, noblemen or ladies with shawls and parasols. The arrival of rococo produced pastoral scenes such as peasants making merry at festivals, ladies having picnics and aristocratic couples enjoying a stroll.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 might be seen as the beginning of a slow decline in the art of azulejo. With an entire city to rebuild, tiles became plainer, more functional and more inclined to devotional scenes that, it was thought, would protect against further natural disasters. By the early 19th century, mass production allowed tile work to appear on ordinary houses and public buildings, but the azulejos continued with simple, stylised designs that were a far cry from the elaborate, hand-painted works of the past

View of Porto's Sao Bento Station, Portugal

The Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements of the early 20th century, which had a liking for tile work (and for geometric and floral motifs), helped revive the art in Portugal. You’ll notice azulejos in this style on the facades of restaurants and shops, yet two of the most outstanding examples of them adorn train stations. Porto’s Sao Bento station is covered in 20,000 tiles depicting romanticised versions of important moments in Portuguese history, such as battles and a royal wedding. Just as famous is the train station at Pinhao in the Douro Valley, whose tiled panels depict vineyard scenes and the process of wine production

But wherever you are in Portugal, you only need look up and it won’t be long before you see another example of this quintessential Portuguese art. It might be a family residence covered in repeated flower patterns, a church facade looped with blue garlands and medallions of saints, or the wall of a palace featuring a parade of nymphs and goddesses. It’s Portugal’s culture and history preserved in ceramic, architecture turned into a picture book, and a wonder to behold.

Join us on Travelmarvel's 8 Day Douro Discovery, on a return cruise from Porto to the town of Vega de Terron, just across the Portuguese-Spanish border. Along the way, discover Porto, Palace de Mateus, Sao Bento and Pinhao, and the amazing azulejos that can be found in these stunning Douro destinations.