Portugal is one of the rare European countries that adopted the legacy of the Moors. They put it into stunning use over the centuries. And you can now see it out on the streets in the form of Azulejo. The term stands for hand-painted tiles and there are exquisite displays covering walls all over the countries. You can find Azulejo on train stations, buildings, even churches.
This type of art also made it in other countries. Portuguese and Spanish colonies in South and North America also practice the art of Azulejo. These tiles are a major aspect of Portuguese architecture to this day. And some of them chronicle major historical and cultural aspects of Portuguese history.
The word Azulejo comes from the Arab word “azzelij” or “al zuleycha”. It means small polished stones and refers to a ceramic piece, usually squared and one side glazed. It is an identity art of Portugal. Azulejo was used through the past five centuries.
In Portugal, tiled pavements, made of geometrical pieces of plain colors were used since the 13th century. Moros brought Azulejo to the Iberian Peninsula, and the influence in Portugal came from Spain in the 15th century. King Manuel I visited Seville where he saw the tiles and brought the idea to Portugal. In accordance to Islamic law, the first tiles portrayed no human figures, only geometric patterns.
He used the first tiles from Seville to cover up large areas of blank walls, common inside buildings during the Gothic period.
During the 16th century, as Portugal got liberated from the Moros, the motifs changed. Gone were the Moros and the Islamic motifs. Portugal welcomed European motifs with Gothic and Renaissance references. But the use of Hispanic-Moorish techniques prevailed and endured.
At this point, azulejos were decorated in a simple color palate, dominated by blues and whites. But by the time the Age of Discoveries came, the colors changed. They were more prominent and some considered them fashionable. Yellow, gold, and even green colors started to appear on the tiles.
After the Earthquake of 1755 which destroyed most of Lisbon, there was a shift from Portuguese-Gothic style to Pombaline style. And during the last few centuries, the use of azulejos exploded.
Today, you can see them in decorating churches, monasteries, restaurants, bars, railways, subway stations, palaces, and even in regular homes. And the moment you step foot on Lisbon airport, you will be welcomed by azulejos.
At the start of the 20th century, Art Nouveau azulejos appeared by artists such as Jose Antonio Jorge Pinto, Julio Cesar da Silva, and more. Artists started using azulejos for storytelling purposes. For example, the Sao Bento railway station in Porto, show historical themes in the narrative style of the romantic picture-postcard. It is one of the most notable creations with azulejos of the 20th century.
Portugal is not the only country where azulejos are a form of art. Basically, most Spanish and Portuguese colonies adopted the art as well. For example, in the Philippines, the tradition survives on staircases. The Philippines are a former Spanish colony.
Other countries where you can see azulejos include Canada, Uruguay, Macau, Peru, Brazil, and some cities in Mexico.