A very special thing about Portugal is that building frontages are full of tiles, called azulejos. In fact this is so special that there is a whole museum dedicated to tiles. We were to leave Lisbon for Coimbra by a train out of Santa Apolonia station, and I found from my map that the museum was very close by. So we checked out of our hotel, left our luggage in a very large storage locker in the station and took a bus to the museum. The museum is housed in a beautifully restored church. It’s about four stops away from the station. The bus driver was very helpful and told us exactly where to get off. The museum was right opposite the stop.
The museum is stunning. It starts with a series of exhibits which show how the tiles were made, and how the technology of glazed and painted tiles progressed. This first hall is followed by a series of brilliant old tiles. The first three images you see in this post come from the next two halls. The brilliant combination of yellow and blue are used in so many ways: not only to extend the geometric designs inherited from the Moors, but also to create paintings. The human figures are not very finely done; it seems that there was a sharp division between painters and tile makers. However, the studies of flowers and birds and outstanding. One of my favourites was the elaborate panel pictured at the top of this post.
This floor also contains a workshop which is closed to the public, and the elaborate chapel of the church. The gilded chapel with its tiles have been restored very well. After this one has to climb to the next floor. As one climbs, the yellow is lost from the tiles. There are elaborate hunting scenes done in blue and white. In a little chamber near the head of the stairs our eyes were drawn to portraits of Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza (shown here). The political marriage between the two had many consequences, but the one which lasted longest was that the seven islands of Bombay went as Catherine’s dowry to England, and formed the seed of the megapolis which I live in.
The hunting scenes continued through the next chambers. The discoveries which Portuguese soldiers made also found their way into these pictures. The one alongside shows leopards, although the draughtsmanship is suspect. Are they leopards or hyenas, or a non-specific savage animal? The posture looks like a hyena’s, but the face and tail is more like a leopard’s. There were similar confusions in other tiles from this age. In one the relative sizes of lions and dogs were odd. This was possibly because the artists of this period drew fabulous beasts which they may not have seen or observed closely. Just before and after this period they draw flowers and birds which are exquisitely observed and executed.
It seems that tiles were also used for instruction. There were a few tiles with technical drawings. Here is one which seems to illustrate some principle of map making. However, technical drawings are seldom self-explanatory. Even today, if you take a technical drawing out of a book, you lose its meaning. These tiles standing by themselves in a museum lose the cultural binding to working knowledge.
After this we came to more modern tiles. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of the common era advances in chemistry are clearly recorded in the new colours available. The “caste” distinction between tile makers and painters also begin to disappear. You first see this in the changing repertoire of subjects in the tiles. Here is a set of tiles which show faces which have clearly descended from a line of draughtsmanship which leads from Hogarth to Bill Watterson
The last hall contained work by the artist Hein Semke, a German settled in Lisbon some time in the beginning of the twentieth century. The works on display showed a clear merging of German expressionism with the ceramics we had just seen. The Family and I thought that ceramics show a clear merging of technology and art, a trend that intensified through the last century and is commonplace now. The modern ceramic tiles after this, like the locusts shown here, are further examples of art and technology coming together.
An upper floor contains a panorama of Lisbon in tiles. As we looked at it and realized how little of the city we had seen, we thought this was a perfect thing to end our trip to Lisbon with. It gives us incentive to come back.