The origin of the tile – ‘Azulejo’

The first-ever known glazed tiles were made in the regions of Egypt and Mesopotamia in the 27th century BCE. They were brought to the Iberian peninsula via Moors from the Middle East. The motive was to imitate Byzantine and Roman mosaics. The term ‘Azulejo’ has been derived from an Arabic word known as ‘zellige’, which means a polished stone. One of the earliest polished tiles was made in Seville and Spain. Those were glazed and cut into smaller pieces. They were reassembled to form various geometric patterns. In 1503, Portuguese king Maurel I visited Seville. He was so impressed by the art of Azulejo tile makers that he used the art form in Sintra National Palace itself in Portugal. They even adopted the Moorish tradition of horror vacui, which resembled the fear of empty spaces. Thus, they began to cover the entire walls with Azulejo tiles. Day by day, the use of Azulejo tile increased. The Azulejo tile makers reached each region of the country. Some new people learnt the tile-making process and developed their unique ways of using the tiles. In Europe, Azulejo tiles were primarily used under artisanal discipline whereas, in Portugal, they developed into a high-cut form.

An overview of Azulejo Tile makers - Sheet1
A glimpse of Sintra National Palace _ ©Photography by Sopotnicki

The evolution

An overview of Azulejo Tile makers - Sheet2
Cloister walls of Porto Cathedral _ ©Photography by Vladimir Korostyshevskiy

In the early to mid-16th century, the Azulejo tile makers from Seville in the South and Antwerp in the North used to export the tiles to Portugal. Then the potters of Italy conducted several workshops in Seville and introduced some maiolica techniques. These included a form of tin glazing pottery, which was made on various themes and figurative subjects. The tile compositions also depicted Italian Renaissance and Mannerist styles. There were combinations of repetitive patterns and artistic creations. The tiles were painted as if they were a part of a canvas or a wooden panel.

Now the Azulejo tile makers used the tiles on a large scale to show the allegory and mythological portrayals of the lives of saints and the scenes from the Bible and the hunting scenes. The panels were made on large scales and were duly signed by the Azulejo tile makers, with their respective names. In the latter part of the 16th century, the Azulejo tiles were used for covering large empty spaces such as churches, monasteries or even church altars. The tiles were first used as plain diagonals and then in the 17th century, shifted to be used as horizontal polychrome tiles with interweaving patterns and motifs of flowers and garlands. The Azulejo tile makers also got a chance to make “Azulejo de Tapete”, which means carpet compositions. These compositions were based on the lives of Christ and the saints. They were inspired by the colours and patterns that were used in fabrics and carpets imported from the East.

An overview of Azulejo Tile makers - Sheet3
Azulejo Panels in the Gardens of the Fronteira Palace in Lisbon _©Photography by WorldPhotosadanijs

By the end of the 17th century, the Dutch used the monochromatic patterns of blue and white Chinese porcelain tiles. Soon the Azulejo tile makers adopted the change and started getting commissions to decorate palaces and churches. The tile painters from Portugal also copied the techniques. Later on, King Peter II put a stop to the imports of Azulejos from 1687 to 1698. They used the tiles produced, designed and painted by Portuguese artists. Nonetheless, in Portugal, the 17th and 18th centuries continued to see “Ciclo dos Mestros”, also known as; the Golden Age of the Azulejo. Now, the tiles were produced in masses and the demand increased, within the country as well as in Brazil. The styles and motifs kept changing, now to Baroque and Rococo styles. This is how the Azulejo tile makers flourished once again. 

An overview of Azulejo Tile makers - Sheet4
Azulejo Mural by Erró in Oriente Metro Station, Lisbon _ ©Photography by Marina J

There was huge destruction caused due to the earthquake in 1755. The importance of Azulejo tiles increased even more for the reconstruction of Lisbon. Now the designs were simpler. This was known as the Pombaline style. The art styles of Azulejo tile makers changed in the 19th and 20th centuries as well due to various art movements that were taking place such as the Neoclassical style, Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. The 20th century proved to be magical for the Azulejo tile makers, as now the art was not only limited to traditional and to be done only on facades, rather, it was revived to contemporary styles. The underground walls of Lisbon were also covered with Azulejo tiles. All the subway stations throughout the city had their unique Azulejo panels. 

Azulejo tiles in landscaping

Use of Azulejo tiles in lanscaping_© Photography by karnavalfoto

The art of Azulejo tile makers is still respected and practised. The tiles are used in the form of contemporary cultural landscapes as well. Portugal still praises the art. Some factories from the 17th and 18th centuries continue to run. They are duplicating some traditional styles and also producing their new styles. To preserve Portuguese history and heritage, a national museum was established, in 1965, known as the Museo Nacional do Azulejo. The Azulejo tiles became a victim of theft and vandalism and hence now they are protected and preserved by some specific government organizations that are mentioned by the law under the national government.


A young architect, and a keen learner who would love to experiment with the intricacy of architecture as per changing environment and the functioning of the society, keeping in mind the sustainability factor and history of the respective place or building.