Tiles: The Visual Art of Portugal

When you think of Portugal, colorful tiles come to mind as quickly as the food and the beaches. So, if you want to know more about this beautiful tradition of Portuguese tiles, read on!

What are Portuguese tiles?
Tiles are a huge part of Portuguese history and the two are really are inseparable. Portuguese tiles come in many forms and are made of ceramic and are painted and glazed to withstand weather and wear. However, these are not just simple tiles, they are a huge part of Portuguese culture and traditions.

The technical aspect around the production of tiles is very specific and its main characteristic is the longevity it offers to the final product, which is why almost every building in Portugal is decorated with tiles. And some date back centuries!

How and when did tiles appear in Portugal?
Even though tiles are originally from Egypt, they were first brought to Portugal by the Arabs, in the 13th century at the time of their invasion, which also helped shaped Portugal’s culture. However, it was in the time of King D. Manuel I that tiles were first introduced to Portugal. They were, in fact, imported from Seville after the King’s visit to Spain. It is said that he was so enchanted by these tiles’ brightness, that he had to bring some back to Portugal to decorate his palace walls – the National Palace of Sintra.

How are Portuguese tiles made?
The first tiles’ factory dates the 18th century and was build in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital. Since then, the process has been conserved as much as possible, always preserving its tradition and the method associated with it. Most of the Portuguese tiles are square and thin, in order to be used to decorate the walls of buildings. The tiles are baked in an oven and its outer part is glazed afterwards so that they can be painted by the artists. This glazing makes them waterproof, in order to resist any environmental conditions.

Use of Portuguese tiles
Initially, Portuguese tiles were used inside most buildings. As they were only bought by wealthy families, it is understandable that they didn’t use them outside as much.

Over time, the tendency was to use them in every building’s construction, so it is possible to see them almost everywhere. The decoration itself depends on the artist, or the architect and constructor of the building, since you can decorate a house with equal, colored designs or pieces of art.

That being said most people build patterns and decorate their houses in a very geometrical design. However, as you can also tell a story, it is very common to see detailed murals depicted on churches and monasteries.

These type of paintings are very “church typical” as they depict Biblical passages and illustrate them as specifically as possible. Back in the day, only wealthy people would have access to the Bible, so painting tiles was the way the Church related to the masses.