Discover the Tradition of
Azulejo Tiles in Portugal
The Origins of Azulejos
On church walls, the sides of cafes, in laneways and marketplaces, eye-catching azulejos, or painted tiles, can be seen throughout the cities of Portugal. The decorative tiles are believed to have been introduced to the Iberian coast in the 13th century when the Moors from the Middle East invaded the lands that now belong to Spain and Portugal.
Originally, it was developed to mimic Roman and Byzantine mosaics. The word azulejo stems from Arabic roots, meaning ‘small, polished stone’.
It was in Seville, Spain where some of Europe’s earliest samples were first created. After a visit to Seville in 1503 the Portuguese King Manuel grew fond of the technique and introduced it in Portugal where it was adopted into Portuguese culture. Widely used in the Sintra National Palace outside of Lisbon, the colourful and polished tile technique grew in popularity from there.
The tiles were used to cover up the large areas of blank wall that were common inside buildings during the Gothic period. Antique azulejos were decorated in a simple colour palate, dominated by blues and whites. It is believed that these colours were influenced by the Age of Discoveries (15th–18th centuries) and considered fashionable at the time. The other colours that appeared were yellow (sometimes appearing gold) and green.
ABOVE & BELOW: Pinhão Railway Station, Portugal
After their introduction into Portugal, simple geometric shapes were replaced by more ornate decoration. It was (and still is) typical for the Portuguese to tell stories about their history, religion, and culture through this decorative means; they soon became pieces of public artwork.
While visiting a church or cathedral in Portugal, visitors should pay as much attention to the alters as the interior and exterior walls. Many are decorated in azulejos. Birds and leaves were frequently symbols used as decoration, possibly inspired by Asian fabrics.
During the last couple of centuries, the use of azulejos exploded. Today, it is common to see them adorning churches, monasteries, restaurants, bars, railway and subway stations, palaces, and regular homes. They are also used extensively in interior decoration.
Guests on a Scenic Douro river cruise in Portugal can enjoy a hands-on experience painting their own azulejos with Maria Kocas, an expert tile painter and instructor who will come on board Scenic Azure, to lead the interactive class.
Here, we speak with Maria to learn more about this traditional and local craft.
BELOW: Scenic Azure, Douro, Portugal