Seduced as we were during our first visit, by Lisbon’s urban kaleidoscope of ceramic tiled buildings, we want more!
A return visit to Lisbon a month or so later, allows us to delve deeper into Portugal’s Azulejo (ceramic tile) culture…
In order to get a better feel for the history of Portugal’s Azulejo (tiles) culture, we head to the phenomenal Azulejo Tile museum. The museum not only houses selected tile works that depict each era over centuries of ceramic creativity, it also functions as a restoration center for damaged historically valuable tile works.
A period of frantic tile construction started in the 1600s with ceramic works contracted by the Church, hence many chapels and convents are adorned with ceramic magnificence. In addition to patterned tiles, the Church commissioned smaller panels with saints and religious narrative.
This practice of covering altar frontals with tiles instead of fabric began in Spain and extended to Portugal in the 16th century.
What is peculiar is that, until this massive investment in tile artistry, tile work was associated with Portugal’s lower class. It was thus highly unusual for Portugal’s religious leaders and monarchs to seize upon this particular art form and to choose to adorn the homes of the noble class with the lowly tile art form.
Starting in the 17th century, Portugal’s ceramicist started to interact with their northern neighbors, in Holland who had mastered the blue and white ceramic style for which Holland is still known. So many churches featured large works depicting every day life in Portugal, in white and blue. These tile works of art represent the closest thing to a “photograph” of Portugal around that time.
Not surprisingly, the themes selected to adorn churches were mostly segments from the scriptures. But they also featured scenes of priests, farmers and tradesmen at work and at rest.
A slow review of the many floors of blue and white tile work reveals a frequent level of humor on the tiles. Witness the scene below “buried” in the midst of a larger depiction of village life…
It is around the 18th century that other colors began surfacing in Azulejo works. In the series of tiled walls shown below, the scene describes an “animal wedding”.
By the early 20th century, scenes of life of Portugal farms became more painterly. Here a huge Azulejo showing the taming of horses.
By the mid 20th century, ceramics was making its mark as a full fledged contributor to “modern art” and Portugal’s expertise with ceramic emerged through bold, abstract pieces.
The Azulejo culture was brought to the streets of Lisbon when noblemen contracted ceramic workers to graduate from flooring with tiles, to internal walls, and finally to adorning the outside facades of their homes and buildings. It is this culture of street level artistic expression that remains vibrant in Lisbon. Not only through the permanency of ceramic tiles, but as well via the ultimately impermanence of the spray can, Portuguese street artist remind us that the best way to view art is at street level.