Wave 108 – Portuguese painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework – Through brushstrokes, shapes and colors

A walk through the rich history of Portuguese painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework: Portugal and Brazil

Translated by Rosemary Baptista

Azulejos are a significant artistic and cultural expression in Portugal, where they have been present for over five centuries. These ceramic pieces are also remarkable in Brazil, especially in the context of modernist architecture. With shades of cobalt blue or vibrant colors, sinuous lines or striking geometries, the Azulejos connect the history and culture of these two countries, keeping this rich cultural tradition alive.

Since colonial times, Azulejos have been used in Portugal and Brazil as a finishing and decorative solution for a variety of ambience and styles. Artistically beautiful and easy to maintain, makes them a versatile, long-lasting option. They connect different locations and cultures in the past, in the present and, as they have continuously demonstrated, far into the future for many generations to come.


Portuguese house with facade decorated with tiles. (Foto: dreasmtime.com)

Tourists visit Portugal in search of the beautiful and decorative Azulejos that frame baptismal fonts and water fountains, for example. They are also attractive due to the aesthetic beauty and good conservation of facades and tiled walls of centuries-old churches and houses.

The old handcrafted Portuguese Azulejos with paintings with soft and fluid effects are part of Portugal’s identity and draw attention for their technical and artistic quality. Still in the 15th century, the so-called master painters used soft brushes to apply delicate lines in shades of cobalt blue to glazed ceramics, drawing a variety of themes such as historical scenes, religious figures, geometric patterns and floral details, among others.

The overwhelming earthquake of 1755 leveled Lisbon and required the city’s reconstruction. Tiles presented themselves as a great coating solution and, with increased production, they became cheaper. They became fashionable and became part of the decoration of many buildings in the capital of Portugal.

The Sant’Anna factory, in Lisbon, is one of the few that continues to preserve this important cultural and artistic tradition alive. Founded in 1741, it is famous for the production of hand painted Azulejos (tiles), following traditional craft techniques.

For those interested in the subject, the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Museum of Tiles) in Lisbon tells the story of the Portuguese Azulejo, from the 15th century to the present day. This well-assembled and important museum shows the evolution of Azulejo and their various technical and artistic styles over time. As an international reference on this subject, it is an unmissable visit for anyone, while in Portugal, who appreciates the country’s art and history.


Portuguese tiles came to Brazil in colonial times, assuming forms and use of artistic paintings of the metropolis. Over time, they adapted to the local climate and culture, gaining some slight differences.

São Francisco de Assis church, in Belo Horizonte, with tle facade by Cândido Portinari. (Foto: Aguina / Dreamstime.com)

In the 1940s and 1950s, Brazilian Modernist architects and artists gave azulejos a new aesthetic, creating unique textures and patterns. Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and Athos Bulcão, for example, are references in the architecture and artistic standard of the large public buildings in the Brazilian capital, Brasília, built in the late 1950s. But Cândido Portinari, is highlighted here. He signs, among others, the large azulejos panel that makes up the façade of the Church of São Francisco de Assis (St. Francis of Assisi) . The little church is part of the Conjunto Moderno da Pampulha, in the city of Belo Horizonte. Recognized as Heritage Cultural Landscape by UNESCO, the painting is entirely done in shades of cobalt blue on a white background, which pays homage to the art of Portuguese azulejos in the perspective of the 20th century.

As an innovative modernist artist, Portinari draws curved lines that give originality, lightness and movement to the painting. The panel evokes, through the brushes of the engaged artist, the essence of someone who loved animals. The scene of Saint Francis talking to vultures generated indignation at the time, to which the painter would have replied something like:

“I don’t see anything wrong with the humblest of saints talking to the humblest of birds” – Cândido Portinari, in a comment about the vultures on his azulejos panel.

(Left) Detail of vulture birds, panel by Cândido Portinari. (Right) Selarón Stairs, in downtown Rio de Janeiro. (Photos: dreamstime.com)

It is also worth mentioning the Escadaria Selarón (Selarón Stairway), one of the most visited places in the city of Rio de Janeiro. The experience becomes even more interesting when we know that many of the painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework were sent by people from different parts of the world, over more than 20 years. Tourists stroll along its 215 colourful and decorated steps to experience the joy of colours and discover details of the work of Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, an admirer of the Brazilian creative spirit.