Azulejos are the famous painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework typical of the Spanish and Portuguese tradition. The word azulejo derived from the Arabic word zellige, meaning “polished stone”. This shows clear influences from the Arab zellige, still in use in Egypt and Morocco.
The earliest azulejos can be dated around the 13th century in Seville and Granada, where tiles were glazed in a single color, cut into geometric shapes, and assembled to form geometric patterns.
These techniques were introduced into Portugal by king Manuel I after a visit to Seville in 1503. He asked to cover many walls of Sintra Palace completely with azulejos, adopting the Moorish tradition of “horror vacui”. The first tiles were imported from Seville, and in accordance with the Islamic law, they portrayed no human figures, but only geometric patterns.
Gradually the Portuguese painters began to paint human or animal figures, especially Christian legends and historical events. In the 17th century, the most used colors were just white and blue, influenced by the Ming Dynasty porcelain. In the following centuries, the dominant colors became blue, yellow, green, and white.
Lisbon has a Museo Nacional do Azulejo, where visitors can understand the history of this art and beautiful azulejos can be seen in São Vicente de Fora, Fronteira Palace, Igreja de São Roque, Casa do Alentejo and Capela de São Sebastião.
Today Portuguese azulejos by contemporary artists cover many of Lisbon’s Metro stations and this art continues to be a symbol of Portugal and Lisbon.