Why you should visit the National Tile Museum in Lisbon
Viking River Cruises knows that one of the first places you should visit when you arrive in Lisbon is the National Tile Museum. We didn’t know that so we had been bumbling about for 4 days before meeting up with our cruise.
We had been admiring the tiles of Lisbon but didn’t know a thing about their origin, history or how they were made. It turns out that knowing a little something about them makes the tiles even more interesting. (This may seem obvious to you but more knowledge being better is not a universal truism. For example, knowing more about your brother-in-law’s toenail infection does not make him more interesting.)
The tiles, or more properly, azulejos, account for much of the beauty of Lisbon. They are seen throughout Portugal but in the density of Lisbon it’s visually striking how they create a distinctive landscape.
You see them everywhere. They cover buildings, adorn walls, brighten up rail stations, beautify churches and libraries and make water fountains into works of art.
So what’s the story behind them?
The best way to learn the story behind the tiles is to go on Viking River’s optional outing to the National Tile Museum on your first full day in Lisbon. Viking, of course, gets the group a private guide. Also included is a tile-painting workshop where you can either show off your artistic skills or humiliate yourself.
Alternatively, you can read this post and trust us to give you the real scoop. (We think Option A is better but this is at least a starting point.)
History of tiles learned in the National Tile Museum
The term azulejo comes from the Arabic word az-zulayi, meaning “polished stone”. The Moors brought an early form of this artwork to the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. Because the earliest ones were painted according to Islamic Law they did not show human figures. They were primarily geometric designs.
However, Spain, after the Christians booted the Islamists out, ultimately influenced Portugal’s tile designs more than the Moors. (OK, we just couldn’t resist doing the “more than the Moors thing” but it’s still true.)
After the “Christian Reconquest” Christianity and nobility influenced and financed the designs and creation of the tiles. As a matter of fact, The National Tile Museum is in a former convent, originally named the Madre de Deus. It was founded by Queen D. Leonor in 1458.
The original tiles developed by the Moors used a bas-relief technique to keep the colors on the tiles from bleeding into each other and ruining the designs. With bas-relief each part of the design had its own little compartment for its dye.
Then someone wised up and realized that they should use majolica which had been critical to pottery-making for a couple centuries. Majolica is a mixture of clay dipped in a mineral oxide bath and fired in an oven. After that process is completed it has a white opaque background where painted designs will remain intact. A second firing, after the tile is painted, gives it the luster you see on the tiles all around Lisbon.
For large surfaces that were to be covered with repetitive designs the artists would create stencils and use those to ensure continuity. (Blonde used a stencil to create her tile and it indeed helped to illustrate the continuity of her poor painting skills.)
Some scenes you will see, particularly the large murals on the outsides of churches or in chapels, are enormous. You may wonder how they ever put the puzzle together. We were told that the tiles have, on the back, a number and letter scheme that shows the person putting them on the wall the order in which they should go. There were some chuckles in the chapel at the museum as one wall had a goat’s head missing but it appeared in a corner on the opposite wall. Someone had probably been texting their BFF when they should have been numbering their tiles.
Religion and advances in how to make tiles were major factors and so were the times when the tiles were painted. As with painting, there are tiles from many eras and influences – Romantic, Baroque, Art Deco, etc.
Europe developed a major crafts-crush on Ming Dynasty porcelain so many tiles have that look in terms of design and color.
Other tiles in the museum looked like cartoons.
Others were well, weird.
Brunette needed smelling salts after seeing the tile design above. Such a delicate thing!
Creating your own tiles at the National Tile Museum
After we toured the museum we were taken to tables where all of the supplies needed to create tiles had already been set out for us. Suddenly everyone became very earnest and gave careful consideration to issues such as stencil or freehand and color scheme. A chatty group became focused and quiet. We tried not to giggle too much.
Several people drew and painted beautiful tiles.
We weren’t among them. Brunette did a quite decent freehand of the Viking logo and Blonde barely produced a childlike stenciled sailboat.
After we finished creating our masterpieces they remained behind at the museum so they could sell them at a huge profit.
No wait, something about that sounds wrong.
Whoops – checked our notes and it turns out that our tiles were left behind for the second firing that would make them shiny.
In Viking’s customary going overboard (pun, get it?) style of customer service they would be delivered to our ship by another Viking ship later in the week. Then we could take them home to hide or show-off as appropriate (or not).
When we were done painting, everyone meandered to the little ground floor cafe that sold cappuccino and pastries (as well as other things). There was a nice gift shop but given that we had just created masterpieces there was no need for us to purchase potentially inferior craftsmanship.
If you go on the Viking Douro “River of Gold” river cruise do this optional outing. Going to the museum gave us more of an appreciation of the process, some historical context and a chance to shamelessly attempt to curry favor with Viking with the logo tile Brunette made.
(Way to go, Brunette!)
FCC Disclosure: We were the guests of Viking River Cruises and we hope they don’t regret that (too much).