Lisbon is known for decorative ceramic tiles. On houses and apartment buildings, shops and restaurants, churches and theaters; they are everywhere creating a distinctive sense of place. It is fun to walk through the city and see the grand murals and individual geometric masterpieces.
For anyone interested in this historic art form, a visit to the National Tile Museum is a must. The museum chronicles five centuries of art and production. It offers a window into life and fashion over time.
I have the opportunity to tour the museum and make a tile of my own while on a Viking River Cruise optional excursion.
Our small group is led by a young and enthusiastic guide. She explains the Azulejo, painted ceramic tiles, arrived in Portugal during the 15th century by way of the Moors who ruled at the time. The word is derived from Arabic meaning “polished stone“.
Housed in the 16th century Madre de Deus Convent, museum exhibits are displayed in a timeline along long corridors. The exhibits help us understand the way tile was first made and how the process evolved. What hasn’t changed though is the talent of the tile painters.
The museum’s collection features beautiful tiles from as early as the 15th century as well as contemporary examples.
Part of our tour includes the opulent chapel dedicated to St. Anthony. Of note are panels in the ceiling with gilt frames set with paintings, including portraits of King João III and his queen, Catherine of Austria. Glorious paintings in the church depict the life of saints. Filling the main vault are scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
The highlight of the museum is a blue and white composition of 1300 tiles, 75 feet long, of Lisbon’s cityscape made in 1738. It is said to be the country’s longest tile piece.
Another highlight for me is when I am able to paint a tile. The 12 of us sit around two tables. All admitting we are not artists, we are offered small pictures with tiny holes punched around the pictures details. We then take a small bag of charcoal dust and dab the painting so that the outline can be seen on the tile. When the tile is fired, the coal dust disappears.
While our cruise group is transported north to Porto and sails along the Douro River, the tiles are fired and presented to us when our ship docks for the final time in Porto.
Portugal is known for its tiles. If you have a chance to visit this museum, by all means take advantage of the opportunity — for the history, the art and the appreciation..