The Azulejo in Portugal. An identitary art. A world heritage.

Understand the Portuguese "azulejo" and why it is such a unique decorative language

Azulejo panel with Islamic motifs (1503)National Azulejo Museum

The Hispanic-Moresque

In the early 16th century, the use of azulejos as a wall revetment became widespread, using patterns in the Hispano-Moresque techniques of corda-seca and aresta, produced in Seville and Toledo. 

Composition with islamic motif azulejos (door) (1500/1550)National Azulejo Museum

Islamic culture was the first great reference for azulejos in Portugal, which lived on in future applications through the aesthetic taste conveying the horror vacui or "fear of the empty".

Panel with moral emblems (1625/1650)National Azulejo Museum


Azulejo production began  in the second half of the 16th century, in Lisbon. This was encouraged by a number of Flemish artisans that settled in the capital, bringing with them their know-how and experience of the new technique.

Altarpiece of Nossa Senhora da Vida (1580) by Marçal de Matos (attrib.)National Azulejo Museum

The panel known as Nossa Senhora da Vida (Our Lady of Life) is one of the most important pieces in the collection of the National Azulejo Museum and one of the key pieces of 16th century Portuguese production. It was originally applied in the Church of Santo André in Lisbon which was partially destroyed by the 1755.

The panel is painted in "trompe l’oeil", employs a wide range of tones, and is considered one of the richest to be found in azulejo production of the time.

It simulates a three-part altarpiece composition painted on a surface of 1.498 azulejos, presenting in the centre a painting with the Adoration of the Shepherds. It attempts to imitate a painted board with a fine giltwood carved frame.

Four columns flank the two niches containing images of the Evangelists Saint John and Saint Luke, depicted as sculptures.

Observing this panel one can understand one of the identity aspects of Portuguese azulejos, which is how they are directly related to the space where they were applied.

The fact is that the space, currently empty, in the centre of the panel corresponded in the Church of Santo André to a window. As the light came in through that window it would have symbolically underlined the route taken by the Dove of the Holy Spirit to reach Mary.

This concept of associating architecture to the message intended to be conveyed is one of the central aspects of Portuguese production, one that sets it apart from azulejo production elsewhere.

This panel’s catechist function, with the powerful expression conveyed by the composition’s monumentality and setting, is also paradigmatic of Portuguese azulejos as an art intended to integrally cover and have the capacity to transform architectural structures.

‏‏‎ ‏‏‎National Azulejo Museum

Pattern azulejos

The 17th century is decisive for the affirmation of the azulejo as an identitary art of Portugal.

Pattern azulejo panel known as "ponta de diamante" (1608/1639)National Azulejo Museum

One of the characteristics that then stood out, although it had its roots in the previous century, was how it was applied as a structuring element of architecture, throughout what were often monumental revetments, with pattern azulejos performing a key role.
The Church was the main entity responsible for commissioning repeat azulejos, an extremely effective option for the often total revetment of the walls in its churches.
The multiplicity of solutions and proposals in the Portuguese pattern tiles of this period has no parallel in other European productions.

Pattern azulejo panel (1648)National Azulejo Museum

The patterns were structured using repetition modules of 2x2, 4x4, 6x6 and 12x12 azulejos – although there are a few very rare examples made up of an odd number – forming tapetes or carpets framed by borders or bars, very often with added friezes.

At this time, azulejos were polychrome, using the colours blue, green and yellow, although patterns were also produced of blue on a white background.

Pattern azulejo panel with camellia (1660/1680)National Azulejo Museum

This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the creative process of Portuguese ceramic painters: their capacity to invent and interpret themes and decorative motifs from various origins, a fusion of influences that led to the creation of a unique language.

Pattern azulejo panel (1620/1640)National Azulejo Museum

Note also the existence of patterns that are impossible to group together as they are rare or even unique, with strongly dynamic rhythms, some even confusingly so, inspired on fabrics, leather and metalwork. As a whole they attest most eloquently to the creativity of Portuguese 17th century potteries.

Panel from the Hunting Room (1670/1680)National Azulejo Museum

Figurative and ornamental azulejos

The 17th century was the time when the different uses of azulejos were outlined: the pattern, figurative and ornament. In that sense, an in-depth knowledge of the azulejos of the era is essential to understand how the azulejo was conceived and used in our country, as opposed to in other places and cultures, and reflecting a very specific taste.

Pan or Silenus (1650/1675)National Azulejo Museum

Figurative azulejos in the 17th century are determined by commissions. The Church and the nobility were the two social groups that commissioned azulejos at this time, using figuration to convey messages, whilst not neglecting the decorative value of the compositions.

Panel from the Hunting Room (1670/1680)National Azulejo Museum

Figurative azulejos with profane themes were for the most part commissioned by the nobility, a group that played a decisive role in the restoration of national independence from the Spanish crown in 1640.

The leopard hunt (1650/1675) by Pottery of Manuel Francisco (?)National Azulejo Museum

Compositions were directly inspired by European engravings interpreted in a more or less naïf form by untrained painters.

In this hunting scene, which was quite accurately copied from the original engraving, various kinds of traps were used: like this one with a mirror, which appears to be successful in capturing the female.

But there is an alteration to the source of inspiration. The European soldiers were replaced by indigenous people crowned with feathers likes the Indians in Brazil.

Panel with moral emblems (1625/1650)National Azulejo Museum

In addition to a decorative function, some panels had a symbolic meaning that was only obvious to certain viewers.

Altar frontal (1650)National Azulejo Museum

Among the representations with different levels of reading were the altar frontals inspired on the so-called panos da Índia, or Indian cloths - eloquent testimonies of Portuguese azulejos as a place of the meeting of cultures, in this case with the peoples encountered during the overseas expansion.

Singerie: the chicken’s wedding (1660/1667) by Pottery of Manuel Francisco (?)National Azulejo Museum

We should bear in mind that in all the profane spaces for which azulejos were commissioned, they reflect the taste of the proprietors, with the dual function of decorating architectural spaces and spreading messages of social and political affirmation.

This is one of the most enigmatic azulejo panels in the collection of the National Azulejo Museum. A chicken is conveyed in a coach driven by a monkey, behind two elephants, giving the scene an added sense of exoticism.

Moving in the opposite direction is a triumphant cortege of monkeys playing a variety of musical instruments.

The monkey, which is an animal that since ancient times in the west has been linked to satire, might help us read this type of panel in the context of the War of Restoration (1640-1668), as a criticism of the enemy or the supporters of the defeated side.

Allegory of sight (1700/1730)National Azulejo Museum

The Baroque period

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the start of a new evolutionary period in Portuguese azulejos, still dominated by the painting of cobalt blue on white due to Dutch influence.

The Baptism of Christ (1700/1730) by Master P.M.P. (?)National Azulejo Museum

During what became known as the Cycle of the Masters (1690-1725), the workshops tried to satisfy a more demanding clientele by producing figurative compositions characterized by a greater freedom in the use of engravings and by the creativity shown in adapting the panels to the areas to be clad.

The azulejo painter, then, acquired the statute of an artist and often signed his panels.

Athena or Minerva (1725/1750)National Azulejo Museum

Having raised the number of commissions made in the second half of the 17th century, the nobility was largely responsible for the production of azulejos with profane themes to decorate palatial quarters, many of them representing warrior, hunting and mythological scenes.

The Church used the azulejo with a reinvigorated and much more effective Catechistic intention, commissioning narrative series, giving rise to iconographic programs of great visual impact, often enhanced by a close link with oil paintings and gilt-wood carvings, assuming the expression of a total work of art.

Invitation figure (gentlemen) (1725/1750)National Azulejo Museum

The so-called "invitation figures" were used more or less continuously between the second quarter of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th century. They are life-size representations of characters placed at points of egress into buildings, and are an original creation of Portuguese azulejo-making.

Ashlars of "pombalino" pattern tiles (1780/1816) by Unknown / Real Fábrica de Louça ao Rato (?)National Azulejo Museum

Following the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755, pattern azulejos were used for revetment of the interior of new buildings during the reconstruction. Following new typologies, these azulejos were considered an effective and low-cost solution.

Today they are called "pombalinos" due to the Marquis of Pombal (b.1699-d.1782), who was responsible for the rebuilding works in the Portuguese capital.

Ornamental ashlar with portait of a lady (1820/1830)National Azulejo Museum


The assimilation, both in azulejos and in three-dimensional ceramic ware, of the formal and technical values of the Neoclassical style which were to continue as an eclectic expression until about 1830, began in the Real Fábrica de Louça in Rato, Lisbon (1765-1835) in the last decade of the 18th century. 

The hat maker panels - detail (1790/1800) by Real Fábrica de Louça ao RatoNational Azulejo Museum

Large quantities of ornamental ashlars were produced, which were very popular with and widely used by the middle-class.

The collection at the National Azulejo Museum consisting of seven panels with captions alluding to the História do Chapeleiro António Joaquim Carneiro [The Story of António Joaquim Carneiro the Hatter] is paradigmatic of this new type of commission. These panels recount the tale of the upward social mobility of a poor boy whose hard work made him a wealthy burgher.

Pattern azulejo panel (1850/1900) by Fábrica de MassarelosNational Azulejo Museum

Industrial production

During the 19th century, the expansion of cities and the development of new urban areas together with a more individualistic mentality regarding success and the ostentation of a work-acquired status, led to the growing use of azulejos on façades as a way to mark out otherwise indistinct buildings with aspects that were occasionally related to their owners. Some of the production from factories in the north of Portugal began to be distinguished by the use of relief shapes in azulejos, creating optical effects of light and shade, more accentuated than those to be found in Lisbon.

Pattern panel with butterflies (1905) by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro / Fábrica de Cerâmica das Caldas da RainhaNational Azulejo Museum

Art Nouveau

Ceramics production between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century was marked by the industrialisation of manufacture, so that ceramic objects became part of the day to day life of the Portuguese, whilst azulejos were affirmed as revetments for façades, marking the urban spaces. In parallel to this democratisation process we noted, as a cut-off point, the emergence of authorial production with an essentially decorative vocation. The Art Nouveau influences received directly from France, but later used in Bordalo Pinheiro’s work, could be seen both in the creation of three-dimensional items and in azulejos.

Panel with repeated ceramic relief. Seven Proposals for Architecture Series (2006) by Manuel Cargaleiro / Vietri sul MareNational Azulejo Museum

Ceramics and Urban Art

From the mid-20th century onwards the history of azulejos is difficult to characterise given the multiple languages and proposals it presents as a result of the individual work and the research of each creator. This is a time of diversity, and the azulejo reflects that symphony of languages, a chorus of themes with different visual logics...

Plaque panel, replica of the revetment at the Portuguese Embassy in Brazilia (1991) by Querubim LapaNational Azulejo Museum purely abstract or geometric discourses...

Azulejo panel (1999) by Bela Silva / Fábrica Viúva LamegoNational Azulejo Museum

...figurative elements...

Signs of Lisbon (1988) by Cecília de SousaNational Azulejo Museum

...signs or calligraphic gestures...

Panel (1988/1993) by Jorge Martins / Ratton CerâmicasNational Azulejo Museum

...and purely chromatic elements.

Fernando Pessoa (1988) by Júlio Pomar / Fábrica Cerâmica Viúva Lamego, production Ratton CerâmicasNational Azulejo Museum

The association of this centuries-old art with modernity and the present time promoted the integration of azulejos in what now constitutes the image of the current world, the transport network and especially the Underground.

Shadow invitation figure (1980/1990) by Lourdes Castro / Ratton CerâmicasNational Azulejo Museum

As in the past, the azulejo incessantly seeks new challenges and has already been integrated in some of the typical languages of the contemporary world.

From the pixelated computer images (like the Azulejos do Oceanário de Lisboa, [Azulejos at Lisbon Oceanarium], by Ivan Chermayeff, 1998) to the subversion of the graffiti discourse, passing through the fairy-like exuberance of cartoons or the refinement of the images of publicity or design, it shows an extraordinary capacity to adapt and reinvent, which would be hard to match in another form of artistic expression.

Credits: Story

Contents: Museu Nacional do Azulejo
Photos: Direcção Geral do Património Cultural

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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