One of our must sees on our Lisboa trip was the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, and I was so pleased we made it. The convento the museum is housed in dates back to 1509 whilst the collection of tiles dates back to the late 19th century when as part of a restoration project the convento was decorated with azulejos from other convents and palaces that had either been demolished or seen a change of use. It was however a hundred years later in 1971 before the museum officially opened.
Azulejo comes from the Arabic word ‘al-zulaich’, which means polished stone, and whilst the museum does not spend as much time as I had expected on tile production there is a small display which I found quite helpful.
The tile is cut from a slab of raw clay, it is then covered on one side by a layer of powdered glass mixed with tin-oxide.This glaze enables the colours to be later added without mixing. The design for the tile is copied onto tracing paper and then pricked to create small holes. The paper is placed on the tile and charcoal is ‘pounced’ over leaving a charcoal image of the design on the tile. Excess charcoal or any mistakes are rubbed away with a rabbits tail.The design is then painted on, the ceramic colours used quite different to the glaze. The final stage of course is the firing (980°C).
The museum takes you on a tour of tiles over the centuries; beginning in the 14th/15th century before finishing in the 21st century. One of the most amazing sights though is the Lower Choir and the Church of the convento. The Lower Choir began life as the main choir but after numerous Tagus floods, the convent was remodelled and the lower choir became the mortuary. The windows of the Lower Choir were built at an angle so that sunlight could not shine directly on to the bodies of any deceased being mourned here by the nuns.
From the lower choir you climb a small flight of stairs to the convent’s original cloister known as claustrinho. The tiles here are some of those transferred from other convents, in this case another Lisboa convent – Convento de Sante Ana.
Now before I share a few more of my many (many!) photographs let me share three tips just in case you are planning a visit to the museum too
- if you have an Android phone download the excellent free audioguide, you can find it here.
- there is lots and lots to see (and photograph) so make sure you are well refreshed before you start or even better plan a break half way round in the lovely museum cafe
- and finally leave enough energy for the masterpiece on the 3rd floor!
These tiles are also from another Lisboa convent. They were made to decorate the main stairway of Convento de São Bento da Saúde. That convent is now Portugal’s parliament building, I wonder what is decorating the stairs today?! Unfortunately I don’t feel my picture does it justice, but I wanted to include it in this post as I felt it was so unusual. Can you notice the angles and shapes of the tiles? The panel is cut in this way to match the slope of the stairwell, unusual as on most tile panels on stairs it is the design that is shaped rather than the tiles. Created around 1630 the design includes mythological figures and the coats of arms of some of the religious orders. If you want to learn more about this panel and see a better picture check out the museum website.
Another panel which caught my eye is Senhora au toucador. You can probably work out the English translation from my photograph. The master who created this in the 18th century apparently had a preference for painting scenes of daily life rather than gallant noble scenes. This reflection of the vanity of the nobility can probably still be seen today. To be fair perhaps not the nobility any more but almost certainly some celebrities! I just loved the reflection in the mirror, so clever.
There were in fact many tiles which caught my eye as the gallery below shows, and I promise these are just a tiny sample of what you see at the museum.
Before I go though let me finish with what is probably the museum’s most valuable work – the Lisbon view panel. Created prior to the 1755 earthquake it shows 14km of Lisboa’s coastline from Alges to Xabregas. Originally the panel encircled a room and was placed at knee height, so that those entering the view would have a bird’s eye view of Lisboa. As well as palaces, churches and convents the panel depicts every day activities and modest homes. A historical snapshot of Lisboa as well as an incredible piece of art, thought it a shame though it had not been displayed in the original way.