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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of the National Tile Museum in Lisbon

What is the National Tile Museum?

The National Tile Museum, or Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Portuguese, is a National museum in Lisbon that celebrates Portugal’s age-old tradition of tilework and is housed in a former convent.

Portugese tiles at the national tile museum

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National Tile Museum History

Portugal’s distinctive azulejos (or glazed ceramic tiles) are visible everywhere. Throughout the city of Lisbon, they adorn the façades of buildings, garden walls, corridors in palaces and convents, and many of the finest churches. These small square ceramic pieces, glazed, waterproof and shiny, are true works of art. They often carry themes ranging from historical episodes to mythological and religious scenes or are embellished with traditional decorative elements. First established in 1965, the National Tile Museum, with its varied collection of tiles and ceramics, explores the history of this great craft from the second half of the 15th century to the present day. Although the use of glazed tiles began in Ancient Egypt, they’ve been used in Portugal for over five centuries and are still considered one of the most important forms of artistic expression in Portuguese culture.

It’s fitting that this long tradition is celebrated in a historic setting, the former Convent of Madre de Deus (or Mother of God), founded in the early 16th century by Queen Eleanor of Viseu, to house the Franciscan nuns of the Order of Santa Clara. It has undergone many transformations over time, such as the addition of a Mannerist cloister in the 16th century. While you admire the museum’s collection, look out for the convent’s own artistic highlights, including the paintings and tiles in the church; the wooden chest of drawers from Brazil and gilded woodcarving in the sacristy; the Baroque decoration from the 18th century in Saint Anthony's Chapel; and paintings by André Gonçalves, that combined make this location in Xabregas one of the best examples of Baroque art in Portugal.

Chapel at the national tile museum

Oddly, tiles did not originally have standardised dimensions, as they do today. Only from the 16th century onward did they start to be manufactured at between 13.5 and 14.5 centimetres square, as a consequence of the increase in demand for them and the need to streamline the manufacturing process. It’s also important to remember that the word azulejo has its origins in Arabic, meaning ‘polished stone’, originally used to designate the Byzantine mosaic. King Manuel I, after seeing Islamic-style interiors in southern Spain in the early 16th century, introduced a similarly rich design to the National Palace of Sintra, after which other Westerners interpreted the craft in their own way in the Netherlands and Italy.

According to Islamic law, these decorative tiles could depict only patterns. However, over time, Portuguese artists began to experiment with their designs, portraying various human and animal figures in their work. The tiles were largely yellow, green, blue and white, until the Age of Discovery, when the nation’s exposure to the cultures of Southeast Asia led to the trend of creating large murals in just blue and white, a practice influenced by the Chinese porcelain that Portuguese merchants imported. These expansive decorative schemes are found right across the country, from Lisbon’s Fronteira Palace to Porto’s São Bento train station, and there’s no better way to appreciate this craft than to pay a visit to the country’s National Tile Museum.

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