North-east of Lisbon’s city centre in the ancient Xabregas district lies one of the most precious jewels in Portugal’s cultural crown, the magnificent Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum).
Tracing the evolution of tile-making in Portugal and covering the entire azulejo spectrum, the museum is installed in the Convent of Madre de Deus which Queen Leonor (widow of King João II) founded in 1509.
Spanning several centuries, thousands of exquisite examples of this refined decorative art are exhibited in rooms and spaces set around the convent’s two atmospheric cloisters, with the earliest examples being of geometric Moorish design, mainly in vivid shades of blue, green and white.
The origins of the azulejo date back to the early fifteenth century when it was introduced to Portugal by Arab artisans from Seville and Valencia. About the same time, King João I captured Ceuta in Morocco from the Moors and came to appreciate the exotic beauty of the exquisite azulejo tiles on buildings all over North Africa.
Since then, one of the outstanding characteristics of Portuguese architecture over the centuries has been the decorative use of glazed earthenware tiles, with styles ranging from early arabesque and rich floral designs to religious scenes and large narrative panels.
Its name is derived from the Arabic al zulayj, meaning polished surface. Portuguese artisans, realising that the azulejo was durable, attractive and fairly inexpensive to produce, soon began to make their own versions of it. They continued to do so for the next five centuries, embossing it with their own distinctive character and cultivating its uniquely Portuguese identity.
What to do in Lisbon
Lisbon’s National Tile Museum (indicated on the Google map below) offers a dazzling display of over 12,000 tiles in all, chronologically arranged from 15th-century polychrome designs to 20th-century art deco styles, with the museum’s star exhibit arguably the 23-metre-long frieze of 1,300 tiles from the beginning of the 18th century portraying the entire extent of Lisbon’s waterfront before the great earthquake struck in 1755.
Another of the museum’s many highlights is the 16th-century Nossa Senhora da Vida altarpiece by Marçal de Matos. Almost 5 metres square and containing over a thousand tiles, it depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds, flanked by St Luke and St John.
But this extensive and totally unique tile collection is only part of the attraction. The museum’s main component is the church of Madre de Deus, a masterpiece of baroque architecture reached through a fine Manueline doorway. Its interior is resplendent with a breathtaking combination of gilded baroque woodwork, rare oil paintings by André Gonçalves (1687-1762) and, of course, some of the most precious azulejo tiles in the country, some of them of Dutch origin.
The walls of the low choir are lined with well-preserved 16th-century Seville azulejos and the nave features a coffered vault depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin.
This same elaborate style of decoration continues in the chapter house (coro alto) with ceiling panels painted with portraits from the 16th and 17th centuries of King João III and his queen, Catherine of Austria (attributed to Cristóvão Lopes), as well as the chapel of Santo António where more delightful paintings and tiles depict the life of Lisbon’s most popular saint.
Suitably tiled with food-related motifs, the museum’s cafeteria and adjoining winter garden is the perfect spot for refreshments and/or a light snack in the heart of the museum complex. A shop also caters for visitors looking to purchase reproductions of classic tile designs for friends and family back home.
Visiting Portugal? Listen to the Portugal Travel Show, the podcast for people planning a trip to sunny Portugal…