The tile

The tile is a piece of ceramics used in Portugal as an ornamental and architectural element. It’s a trademark of Portuguese culture, a recurring presence for 500 years already.

When we take a walk on Portuguese lands, we just have to enter a church or chapel or stroll through the villages and look at the façades of several houses, as we will immediately see some tilery examples. In Lisbon, for instance, the Alfama district has several (older) houses with a tile-covered façade. Those more recent have already lost some of this tradition, nevertheless some hotels and hostels have decided to reuse this typically Portuguese decorative element.

If you take Lisbon Metro, or if you go to the Oceanarium, you will also see some recent tilery examples.

To get acquainted with the history of the tile, following its evolution throughout time, the perfect location is the National Tile Museum, which is very close to the center of the Portuguese capital, in Xabregas.

Another extremely interesting aspect is that the Museum’s exhibition is located in what was once a convent, with a remarkable architectural and decorative trait.

I will now give you 10 interesting facts about this space and the tile collection, which will probably convince you to visit this Museum, getting familiarized with one of the Lisbon’s postcards.

I visited the National Tile Museum and checked the whole history of this piece of ceramics, while revisiting the church. This was my 3rd stamp in Lisbon Passport!

1 – The name of the tile derives from the Arabic

The word tile derives from the Arabic term azzelij or zuleycha, which means “tiny polished stone”. It’s a ceramic piece, often square-shaped, with a glazed side.

2 – The very first tiles used in Portugal came from Seville

When the Arabs arrived in the Iberian Peninsula, they brought tilery with them. They elaborately adorned their palaces’ walls, as we can see in several examples that have reached our days. The design usually comprised geometric laceworks and chains.

The Portuguese King Manuel I established direct contact with Seville’s workshops, having placed an order for the Palace of Sintra. After this major order, another one was made by the 5th Duke of Braganza for his of Palace of Vila Viçosa, but this time he opted for Antwerp’s workshops. These would be the first tiles to arrive in Portugal conceived with the faience technique, with different characteristics from those made in Seville, particularly the precision of the drawings.

Tiles from Seville
Tiles from Seville

3 – The first tile potteries in Lisbon used an Italian technique

Seventy years after ordering tiles for the Palace of Sintra, the first Portuguese potteries began to emerge, especially in Lisbon. The artisans were influenced by the Italian art of faience or majolica (later developed by the Antwerpian artisans), but they had yet to reach their skills and years of practice, so the drawings on the panels were less intricate.

Due to the brand-new faience technique, tilery was simplified, with its production becoming much quicker. It was now possible to paint directly on the smooth tile, without having the colors mixed up during the cooking phase, something often seen until that point.

Some nobles and the Church ordered tile panels, using their vast wealth at the time. Various religious temples, manor houses, convents and gardens were decorated with panels made of blue, cobalt, yellow, green and manganese tiles on white.

The motifs depended on the location, with the Arabs fostering a major evolution in that field. The depictions portrayed could be a military campaign, a religious, historical or hunting scene or something related to everyday life. Basically, the panel was made according to the indications of who made the order.

Panel of Our Lady of Life (Marçal dos Matos)
Panel of Our Lady of Life (Marçal dos Matos)
The largest pattern in the world (144 tiles form a drawing pattern)
The largest pattern in the world (144 tiles form a drawing pattern)

4 – The Portuguese tiles started to be painted by specialized artists

Over the years, the artisans perfected and specialized their tilery craft, which improved the production and execution quality. On the other hand, Portugal had emerged from a conflict with Spain and, as a consequence, reopened its relations with the Netherlands where magnificent tiles were made, much more elaborated than in Portugal.

In this context, in the 18th century, emerged the Cycle of Masters, the golden period of Portuguese tilery, comprised of several artists who already painted on canvas, who then started to create beautiful tile panels, like António Pereira or Manuel dos Santos. The tile painters gained the reputation of artists and began to sign their own panels, so the artisans stopped to be responsible for the whole process.

It’s interesting to think that when one of these artists painted the tiles, they could not see immediately their final work, that was only possible after going through a cooking phase at high temperatures. I cannot imagine the genius needed to simply create a color, which would then create a sense of perspective, without having the possibility to immediately see the work’s evolution… Impressive.

During that period, the cobalt blue was used on the white color, due to the Dutch influence and the Chinese porcelain, leaving behind the polychrome.

Panel (23 meters) of tiles where we see Lisbon before the earthquake of 1755
Panel (23 meters) of tiles where we see Lisbon before the earthquake of 1755
Panel (23 meters) of tiles where we see Lisbon before the earthquake of 1755
Panel (23 meters) of tiles where we see Lisbon before the earthquake of 1755

5 – After the 1755 earthquake, Lisbon’s rebuilding was needed

Portugal was experiencing their golden period in tilery when a devastating earthquake occurred, which destroyed almost all of Lisbon. It was then necessary to reconstruct several spaces and tilery was widely used. But it was a difficult time, the State was depleted and so tilery ended up being adapted to the Portuguese vicissitudes. And this is something totally unique in the world.

There was no time or money to pay the artists to create elaborate panels, and so the simple motifs made a reappearance, with patterns that did not force the artisans to have a high level of expertise. At the time, the most influential State figure was Marquis of Pombal, who served as an inspiration for the Pombaline tiles.

Panel with pombaline pattern
Panel with pombaline pattern

Tiles became more affordable as well and so the bourgeoisie started to have them in manors and palaces.

History of the hatter António Joaquim Carneiro - Part 1
History of the hatter António Joaquim Carneiro – Part 1
History of the hatter António Joaquim Carneiro - Part 1
History of the hatter António Joaquim Carneiro – Part 4


6 – The tiles began to be used on the facades and several other places, until the present day

From the 19th century, tiles started to be used on buildings’ façades, not just in palaces and churches. This art increased its reputation, which led to the creation of new factories in Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Aveiro.

More recently, tiles have been used in railway and subway stations. Several artists also integrated the tile in their works of art, like Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, Raul Lino, Jorge Barradas, Maria Keil, Cargaleiro, Fernanda Fragateiro or Júlio Pomar.

Tiles by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro
Tiles by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro
Tiles of the Lisbon Oceanarium
Tiles of the Lisbon Oceanarium

The Portuguese have managed to innovate and adapt this piece of ceramics to their taste and needs. That’s why it has been used for 500 years without interruptions…

7 – A queen ordered the construction of the Convent of the Mother of God

A part of National Tile Museum occupies the facilities that were once the Convent of the Mother of God or Royal Monastery of Xabregas. The convent was founded in 1509 on the initiative of queen D. Leonor, in what had been a Xabregas manor.

The queen was widowed and decided to live in the Convent, adopting a way of life identical to so many other nuns of the Order of Santa Clara (or Clarissas) who lived there. The queen had a vast wealth and, when she returned to the convent, she decided to make a donation for religious works and for the poorest. Even when cloistered, she kept funding the construction of hospitals, like the one that still exists today in Caldas da Rainha.

She expressed her willingness to be buried in a shallow grave in the Convent of the Mother of God, rejecting any royal formalities. It’s located right in the church’s entrance. From the time of the queen, we have the beautiful cloister and the Chapel D. Leonor, everything else was built posteriorly.

This convent was extinguished in 1871 with the last nun’s death, some years after the extinction of the Portuguese religious orders.

8 – The convent’s church is one of the best Baroque examples in Portugal

The convent’s church, whose construction was ordered by D. Leonor, is currently the area known as the Chapter Hall. But, at that time, the water of the river Tagus was quite close to the Convent, flooding the church during the periods of rain. Therefore, a few years later, when a campaign was carried out to expand the convent, a decision was made to build a church on a higher plane, to avoid any floods.

This higher church is a beautiful baroque religious temple, with gilded carving and magnificent tiles. The disposition that these two elements have over one another is what gave rise to the well-known Portuguese expression “Gold on blue”.

Church of the Convent of Madre de Deus
Church of the Convent of Madre de Deus
Church of the Convent of Madre de Deus
Church of the Convent of Madre de Deus

In my opinion, the visit to this church is, in itself, a very strong reason to visit the Museum as well. It’s an ode to Portuguese architecture and history. To visit it, you have to pay the museum’s admission fee, there’s no other way to do it.

On the upper floor, the highlights are the terracotta crib and the choir, where the several relics that once existed in the convent can be found. The existence of parts of a saint (relics) was something extremely important, since they gave notoriety to a convent. This was funded by the royal family, so the convent had a large number of them, which are still intact.

The choir shares the church’s style, also with gold carving. There is a window in this area, where the nuns attended the celebrations, unspotted by those attending the church. You have to imagine, where the glass is, a grid with very small openings through which they could see what was happening.

9 – The oldest part of the convent is the inner cloister

When we visit the convent, we find the cloister and a smaller one, known as the inner cloister. And this is the oldest part of the whole building and, in my opinion, one of the most interesting.


The tiles are beautiful here, which makes this place one of the highlights when visiting the convent (and the Museum), in my perspective.

10 – The convent became a museum

The Convent of the Mother of God was extinguished in 1871, some years after the extinction of the Portuguese religious orders. It was definitely closed in the following year.

In the 20th century, the building went through some improvements to welcome an exhibition on the queen D. Leonor, celebrating her 500th anniversary. This was the context that allowed the transfer of the tile collection of the National Museum of Ancient Art to this place, thus paving the way for the creation of the Tile Museum. In 1980, the site reached the category of National Museum.

Stamp # 2 from my Lisbon Passport! Challenge Fulfilled

Lisbon Passport with the stamp of the National Tile Museum
Lisbon Passport with the stamp of the National Tile Museum

Do not forget to take the Lisbon Passport and stamp it at the store, which is at the end of the visit! Since I have this passport I decided to visit once a month one of Lisbon’s attractions and write about them. The National Tile Museum was my 3rd stamp! 

Travel Guide

When to go: Between June and September for warmer temperatures.

Documents: To enter Portugal, you may need a passport and / or visa, depending on your country in which you live. Citizens of the European Community do not need a visa to enter Portugal. Passports must be valid for up to 6 months (depending on your nationality) and are required by all, except for nationals of the European Union and nationals of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Malta, Norway and Switzerland holding valid national identity cards. Brits, Australians, Canadians, Americans and Japanese need a valid passport.

Although it is not mandatory to have a return ticket, it is advisable to have one, because if you do not, you may have to prove sufficient means of financial support to return.

Currency: The local currency is the euro.

Time zone: GMT.

Language: Portuguese.

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