It would be difficult to visit Porto without seeing at least some of the abundant examples of azulejo art that adorns buildings throughout the city. The uniquely Portuguese tile-work can be seen on homes, in railway stations and covering entire walls on some churches. Some are in areas that are heavily frequented by tourists, whilst others are tucked away, further out of town. It is a worthwhile experience to search out some of the less obvious examples of this beautiful artwork.
Portugal’s azulejo were inspired by the decorative tile work known as zellij in Arabic, which were a feature of Moorish architecture. The Moors brought their artistic style with them on their conquests and the decorative tiles are known to have been used to decorate mosques and other buildings in Spain by the 14th century. King D. Manuel is credited with bringing the azulejo tiles to Portugal, after he visited Andalucia in 1498.
Whilst Portugal began to make its own tiles as early as 1560, their use became more widespread and their production boomed during the 19th century. Over the years, the styles, designs and colours of azulejo changed, as they went through several phases, taking on a unique Portuguese style in the process. Whilst other colours are used, blue on white tiles became very popular, influenced by designs found on Asian porcelain.
Perhaps the two most obvious examples of large-scale azulejos in Porto are on the exterior walls of a couple of churches, in high-traffic tourist areas – Igreja do Carmo and Capela das Almas.
The Carmo Church (Igreja do Carmo) adjoins the Carmelita Church on Rua do Carmo in the historical centre. The entire side-wall of this 18th century Baroque church is covered in blue and white azulejo that depict the story of the Brown Scapular on Mount Carmel.
The Chapel of Souls (Capela das Almas) is also known as the Chapel of Santa Caterina. It is hard to miss for anyone emerging from the Bolhão Metro station, as it is directly across the street. It is also in the heart of the Rua da Santa Caterina shopping area. Whilst the chapel itself dates back to the late 18th century, the azulejo tiles that cover both exterior walls were installed in 1929. The images on the tiles represent the lives of St. Catherine and St. Francis of Assisi.
By comparison, Porto’s cathedral (Sé do Porto) is not such an azulejo hot-spot. It does have a variety of tiled areas but they are not as easy to see – there are a couple of exterior panels on a side wall, a small section under the organ pipes, and a few walls around the interior cloisters.
The 18th century Igreja de Santo Ildefonso had its front facade tiled with azulejo in 1932. The tiles depict the life of Saint Ildefonso. Located near Bathala Square, it is only a short walk from the city centre.
Whilst the above churches are all within the centre of Porto, perhaps the nicest azulejo church is a bit farther out and, as a result, is likely not seen by many tourists. The Parish Church of Carvalhido (Igreja Paroquia do Carvalhido) is located on Libertador Army Square in Carvalhido. It is about a 1km walk from the Carolina Michaelis Metro station.
The church dates back to 1886 and the azulejos are believed to have been added in the 20th century. The twin-towered facade of the church is beautifully decorated with azulejo tiles. But what makes this church stand out from the others are the azulejo scenes that are depicted on the interior walls. Both sides of the church, as well as the area around the altar, are decorated by azulejo panels. Many of the panels depict the stories of saints or miracles. It is a beautiful small church that is worth the journey from the city centre to see.
The small Igreja Evangelica Metodista do Mirante (Lookout Church) is squeezed between a couple of other buildings but its azulejo facade ensures that it stands out. This cute little church wouldn’t be out of place on the top of a chocolate box. Rather than depicting religious scenes, the tiles on this church create pretty frames around the doors and windows as well as incorporating bible verses. The use of red, gold and blue colours on a white background combine to give this facade a unique appearance. It can be found at Praça do Cel, in the city centre. This Methodist church was inaugurated in 1877 and the azulejo tiles were added in 1938.
Whilst several of the churches have made good use of azulejos, the tiles were also used in railway stations around Portugal. An excellent example of such work can be found in the entrance atrium of the Sao Bento Railway Station, in the heart of the historic centre. Unlike the churches, the exterior of the station gives no indication of the presence of the artwork. The station stands on the site of the 16th century Convent of São Bento da Avé Maria.
There are said to be 20,000 tiles that make up the impressive images by artist Jorge Colaco. The tiles date from 1905–1916 and depict a variety of scenes. The larger scenes are created with blue and white tiles and include battle scenes as well as images of people at work. In addition to blue and white scenes, a colourful frieze wraps around the atrium, depicting various forms of transport that were common at the turn of the 20th century.
Azulejo of a very different style can be found at Casa Arabe, on Rua de José Falcão. Unfortunately, I have not yet found any history on this building but, as its name indicates, the architectural style is clearly Arabic. The style and colours of the tiles convey a very different appearance when compared to the blue and white style used on the buildings shown above.
Yet another style of azulejo can be seen on a nearby building, located on Rua da Conceição. On the upper level (which is being refurbished as apartments), the tiles have images of false balustrades beneath each window with floral images framing the upper parts of each window. On the ground floor level, there are tiles that depict mythical creatures such as Pan, cherubs and mermaids.
In addition to decorating the exteriors of buildings, azulejo were also used inside some of the fancier homes. This can be seen inside the Palacete de Viscondes de Balsemão, located on Carlos Alberto Square. This 18th century house was built for nobility. In 1849, the exiled King of Sardinia and Piedmont, Carlos Alberto de Sabóia, stayed in one of the rooms, which is now a museum. The square outside was named after the king. The building houses the Municipal Directorate of Culture and Science of the Porto City Council and admission is free. Azulejo tiles decorate the walls around the double stairway as well as on the second floor.
Adjacent to the Palacete, is the Banco de Materiais (Materials Bank) which is a small archive of historically important building materials from the city. The collection includes a wide assortment of azulejo tiles, in various colours and designs. Whilst most of the tiles are displayed individually, the facility provides an opportunity to view the diversity of this cultural art form. Admission is free.
There are many other examples of azulejo tiles to be found around Porto. In addition to the more notable buildings, azulejos can be seen adorning simple homes and buildings. Whilst out walking, look up at the buildings that you pass and you’ll be sure to spot tiles that you may otherwise have missed. Here are a few examples that I’ve seen.
If you are interested in seeking out more examples of Porto’s azulejos, I recommend obtaining a copy of a free, special edition Azulejo map that is available at the El Corte Ingles department store in Vila Nova de Gaia.
For more information on azulejos throughout Portugal, Susana Fonseca has authored a very nice book called Azulejos com História.