Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Lisbon, Portugal

It's been quite a while since my last post! But what better reason to write than to tell you about one of the most wonderful museums I visited this summer during my vacation in Europe!

Museu Nacional do Azulejo is a gem in one of the few European cities where ceramics has a real tradition: Lisbon, Portugal. Whereas Meissen in Germany, Limoges in France, Manises in Spain, and Faenza in Italy are all famous for their fine dinnerware and decorative pieces, Lisbon is best known for its tradition of using ceramic tiles as building cladding. Walking down the ancient streets of Lisbon, one’s eyes are delighted by the variety of colors and patterns covering nearly every facade.

The history of tiles (“azulejos”) in Portugal dates back to the 13th century, when there was a large Arabic population on the Iberian peninsula. During these early years, tiles were used extensively in interior spaces. However, in the 15th century, King Manuel I of Portugal visited the south of Spain and saw tiles being used on the exteriors of buildings, and he brought the craft back home to his country.

Tiles are a simple slab of clay, cut into geometric shapes, then decorated after bisque firing. A variety of oxides and, more recently, colored stains, are typically applied over a white glaze. Historically, the dominant decorative tile colors in Portugal were blue, yellow, green, and white. However, in the 17th century, a simpler color palette of deep blue on white became fashionable (influenced by Ming Dynasty porcelain from China). In the 18th century, the popularity of tiles exploded in Portugal, seeing widespread use in churches and convents, palaces and homes, gardens, fountains and staircases.

Museu National do Azulejo occupies the former Convent of Madre Deus, founded by Queen Leonor in 1509. The building itself is an example of the lovely renaissance style in Portugal (though parts of it were rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1755). The museum is organized across two floors, with a light-filled courtyard in the center. Many of the walls of the old structure, including those of the ornate chapel, are covered in original painted tiles.

Arranged around the courtyard are many galleries displaying well-preserved tile arrangements from different historical periods. Visitors can trace the fascinating development of tiles in Portugal from its origin all the way up to the present day.

During my life as a ceramic artist I have seen countless examples of painted ceramic wall tiles (and have worked on several murals, myself). I am often impressed by their beauty, but, as I work with decorative ceramics every day, I’m rarely surprised. However, being surrounded by the countless Portugese tile masterpieces in this museum was overwhelming, and a complete joy! For all of you ceramics enthusiasts, I highly recommend visiting this special place!