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In a beautiful old convent, Madre de Deus, an outstanding collection of tiles is on permanent display in Lisbon. You’ll see the characteristic tiles everywhere in Portugal, and in the Azulejo Museum, you’ll learn more about the different styles, the history, and the making. A visit to the Azulejo Museum is one of the best things to do in Lisbon!
Not only are the colourful Portuguese tiles beautiful, but they also have a purpose. Especially back in the day, their primary goal was to keep low temperatures out and protect the house’s walls. The tiles were also used to tell stories. Mainly in churches, you’ll spot a lot of biblical and historical scenes. Let’s have a look to see what you can expect at the Azulejo Museum!
The Madre de Deus Convent
In Xabregas, in the eastern part of Lisbon, you’ll discover a sober-looking building and a church. From the outside, you wouldn’t guess what beauty lies inside. The Madre de Deus Convent is a former convent and church where you can now find the National Museum of the Azulejo (Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Portuguese). The Church of the Mother of God, as well as the convent, were founded in 1509 by Queen D. Leonor, and only the remains of the church and the convent are still standing. The other parts were destroyed in the 1755 earthquake.
The Convent of Madre Deus is richly decorated with paintings and tiles. You’ll discover a Brazilian wood display, the high choir, and the Chapel of Saint Anthony with Baroque decorations from the 18th century. The paintings on the nave and the main chapel are made by André Gonçalves and other painters from this era. Dutch tile painters such as Jan van Oort en Willem van der Kloet worked on the azulejos in the church.
The azulejo collection
The National Azulejo Museum was established in 1965 and opened its doors in 1980. Once inside, you’ll be looking at the permanent azulejo collection with stunning examples. The Museu Nacional do Azulejo houses one of the most significant ceramics collections in the whole world! After entering, you’ll first get an overview of the techniques and materials that were used for manufacturing.
The oldest azulejos are from the second half of the 15th century, and you’ll discover newer azulejos by following the route. You’ll clearly find the evolution of the art and how the styles developed.
You’ll discover a panel with blue and white tiles on the top floor. This composition consists of 1300 tiles that show Lisbon’s cityscape before the earthquake. It was made in 1738 and is, to date, the most extended azulejo piece in Portugal. It is 23 meters long and displays 14 kilometres of Lisbon’s skyline. You’ll notice that some monuments no longer exist as they didn’t survive the earthquake in 1755.
The styles of the Portuguese tiles
The word azulejo, or azzelij, has Arabic roots and means small polished stone. The glazed ceramic tiles date as far back as the 13th century, from the times of the Moors. Back in the day, the style was pretty straightforward, with mainly blue and white colours, but over the years, some incredible creations have been made.
When King Manuel I came back from Seville, the tiles took off in Portugal. This was during the Gothic period, a time for plenty of inspiration. Simple geometric shapes made way for ornate decorations with plenty of storytelling in the designs of the Azulejo mosaic. You’ll see this not only in the Azulejo Museum, but also in churches, facades and train stations.
After the earthquake, the Manueline architecture (the Portuguese-Gothic style) changed to the Pombaline style. This is named after Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the first Marquês de Pombal. He was instrumental in reconstructing Lisbon and supervised the building plans. A standardised way of decorating was applied to both the inside and outside houses, and Baixa was built in a grid shape. Most buildings were created in a simple neoclassical style without too many azulejos. The azulejos that were used had repetitive geometric patterns, and they were cheap and fast to make.
With so much history about the tiles, the convent and church, and the modern designs, the National Tile museum is one of the best museums in Lisbon! The contemporary designs are fantastic to see! In the museum, there are also temporary exhibitions with trendy azulejos.
Location of the Azulejo Museum
The National Tile Museum in Xabregas is a bit out of the touristic route, but it’s easy to reach by public transport. The closest metro station is Santa Apolonia; from there, it’s a 20 to 30-minute walk. From the metro station, some buses drop you off at the museum. In fact, bus 759 stops right at the front door, and bus 794 stops around the corner.
If you have the Lisboa Card, you can take all public transport for free. With the Lisboa Card, you can enter the museum completely free of charge.
The hop-on-hop-off bus also stops right at the entrance of the National Azulejo Museum.
Opening times and tickets
The National Tile Museum is closed on Mondays and public holidays but opens all other days from 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM and 2:00 – 6:00 PM. A standard ticket costs € 5,00 and you can buy them in the museum, or online by clicking the button below.
Things to do in the neighbourhood
Around the Azulejo Museum is not an awful lot to see, to be honest. If you like the artworks by Bordalo, you can spot two here and here. However, getting back to Santa Apolonia is easy, and here you can start exploring the neighbourhood of Alfama. The Lisbon Cathedral, São Jorge Castle, the Santa Luzia viewpoint, São Vincente de Fora and the Fado Museum are famous sights to visit.