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Museu Nacional do Azulejo, one of Portugal's most important museums, hosts a very large collection that reveals the rich ceramic heritage of the country. This collection covers the production of “azulejo”, or coating ceramics, from the second half of the 15th century to the present.


Lisbon, the capital of the beautiful country Portugal, is impressive for everyone, but has a special meaning for a ceramist. The Portuguese lands in the Iberian Peninsula have been the scene of various civilizations, including Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Germans and Andalusian Umayyads, who influenced its culture, history, language and ethnic structure throughout its three thousand-year history. The county founded by Alfonso VI, King of Castile and Leon in 1093, turned into an independent kingdom in the following years, and in the 15th and 16th centuries it became a huge power stretching from Brazil to the Philippines. Ceramics has an important place among the elements that make up the visual culture of Portugal, which has great economic, political and cultural wealth. Coating ceramics known as “Azulejo” is the symbol of Portuguese culture.

Image 1: Museu Nacional do Azulejo

Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum) in Lisbon hosts a very large collection of ceramic heritage found in various parts of Portugal and is one of the most important museums in the country. The museum's collection covers azulejo production from the 15th century to the present day. In addition, there are examples of ceramics, porcelain and faience from the 19th and 20th centuries (Image 13, 14, 15, 16).

Image 2: D. Manuel Hall

The museum is located in the Convent of Madre de Deus, which was built by Queen dona Leonor in 1509 (Image 1). The original church has undergone changes over the course of several centuries. While the effects of the Mannerist movement were seen in the 16th century, elements reflecting Baroque splendor were added in the 17th and 18th centuries. The blue and white compositions in the magnificent D. Manuel Hall are made by Manuel dos Santos, one of the masters of Portuguese azulejo painting (Image 2). Most of the azulejos from the destroyed or closed monasteries were transferred here either by hiding in boxes or by applying them to the surfaces we see in the museum today. Behind the glass doors in the courtyard of the museum, it can be seen that boxes of ceramic tiles are still waiting in the warehouse (Images 3 and 4).

Image 3 and 4: Azulejos in warehouses

Art historian Joao Miguel dos Santos Simoes, an expert in the field of azulejo, transferred all the azulejos kept in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (National Museum of Ancient Art) to this museum shortly after the 500th anniversary of the birth of Queen dona Leonor. In 1970 the Museu do Azulejo (Tile Museum) was opened to the public, and in 1980 it gained autonomy and became the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum).

It is possible to see the works in situ, which is the first Spanish commissions in the early 16th century for Dom Manuel I's palace in Sintra, and constitutes the most remarkable collection of Hispano-Mosque ceramics. At the end of the 15th century, azulejos produced by the corda seca (cuerda seca) or aresta technique, which came from Seville, became widespread in Portugal as wall coverings and large walls were covered with these tiles. At that time, Islamic culture was also reflected in Portugal as the first important azulejo reference, as it was still fresh in Spain's memory. This is the reason for the decorations attached to the horror vacui (fear of empty space) on the wall coverings of the buildings until the 18th century. The oldest example of azulejo produced in Portugal is a section of the Castle of Leiria exhibited in the museum (Image 5).

The majolica technique, which emerged in Italy in the 16th century, had a great influence on the production of azulejo in Portugal. The works that best demonstrate the mastery of the Lisbon workshops in this field are exhibited today in the Museu Nacional do Azulejo. The monumental wall covering dated 1580 from the Nossa Senhora da Vida Chapel in Santo André Church is one of them (Figure 6). The church was partially damaged in the earthquake of 1755 and was demolished in 1845 to make way for urban development and lay a tram line. Image 5: Leiria Castel’s paviments, 14-15th century

The composition scheme and figures of the panel, painted in the trompe-l'œil technique, are taken from Portuguese Mannerist painting.

Image 6: Altarpiece of Our Lady of Life

Patterns gained importance in azulejos produced in Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. One of the Islamic influences on Portuguese ceramics is the modular system of tiles. Initially, Portuguese ceramic painters followed Islamic principles, repeating a single tile or modules of four 2x2 azulejos, but soon turned to more complex systems such as 4x4 modules (16 tiles), 6x6 modules (36 tiles). The 144-tile system created with 12x12 modules in the museum is the largest model known to exist in the world's azulejo production history (Image 7).

Image 7: Polychrome panel, 17th century.

Intense trade between Portugal and China in the 17th century had an increasing effect on the reflections of blue-white porcelain on Portuguese ceramics. In the last years of the century, Dutch commissions altered the taste of Portuguese clients with their exclusively blue on white paintings, a clear reference to the positive influence of Chinese porcelain. Academically trained azulejo painters adorned the buildings with their monumental blue-and-white panels. It is possible to see the best examples of these panels with mythological figures, religious themes or urban images in the museum (Image 8,9).

Image 8: Panel with mythological Image 9: Panel with religious figure, Athena 257,5x144 cm, figures, 18th century 18th century

It is not easy to leave the blue and white monumental panels at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo. If taking a photo in front of these boards is not enough for you, you can join one of the most iconic azulejo (Image 10, 11). These life-size figures are some of the most original pieces of Portuguese azulejo production. Figures depicted as servants, soldiers or ladies were placed in the entrances, doorways and gardens of the palaces to welcome or bid farewell to the visitors.

Image 10-11: Welcoming figüre, 177x145,5 cm,

1725-1750 and its replica

The ceramic art in Portugal gathered many elements such as archaic traditions; Islam; European artistic styles such as Renaissance, Mannerism, Gothic; overseas cultures and the nationalistic characteristics of the empire. However, it managed to have an original and different style of expression. The museum draws attention to the necessity and importance of preserving these ceramics, which are a form of artistic expression that differentiates Portuguese culture around the world. The meeting of contemporary ceramic art with tradition from time to time reveals a different perspective. Just like this triple work of Japanese artist Haru Ishii, symbolizing her dream, friendship and Portugal... (Image 12)

Image 12: “Between Dream and Friendship”, Haru Ishii, 2017

Image 13

Image 14 Image 15 Image 16

Image 13: “Seven Proposals For Architecture Series”, Manuel Cargaleiro, 2006

Image 14: Section of the Portuguese Pavillion Compttoir Suisse, Querubim Lapa, 1957

Image 15: Female figüre, Jorge Barradas, 1950

Image 16: Pattern Tile Panel, Rafael Bordalo Pinhero, 1901-1905

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