Beautiful things can happen when cultures meet. That was the case with ceramic craftsmanship in the Iberian Peninsula during 13th century, when the Moors influenced local ceramic making, leading to the iconic azulejos tile style.
“Azulejo” comes from the Arabic al zellige, literally meaning “small polished stone” and refers to tilework made from individually chiseled tiles knit together with a plaster.
When Portugal’s King Manuel I visited Southern Spain in 1503, he was so impressed by the beautiful tilework of local churches and palaces that he brought the concept back to his kingdom, pushing architects to make use of azulejos both in his own royal palace in Sintra, near Lisbon, and for public works.
In the beginning, azulejos were mainly decorated according to a blue and white palette, with later evolutions comprising more elaborate decorations in green, yellow and gold. Portuguese artists soon adapted the simple but elegant geometric decorations typical of Islamic art—it is prohibited to depict human figures according to Islamic law—to fit their storytelling purposes. It became a tradition to tell stories about Portugal’s history and culture by depicting human stories on azulejo tile that effectively became a ceramic version of Renaissance frescoes.
Today, anyone walking down the streets of a Portuguese city can notice the idiosyncratic tilework in many public buildings, including the Sao Bento Railway Station in Porto and many stops of Lisbon’s subway.