Question: Where in the world is a “chapel of souls” covered in more than 15,000 blue and white tiles?
Answer: Chapel Almas de Santa Catarina, Porto, Portugal
On the bustling street of Santa Catarina in Porto, Portugal, one building clad in iridescent tiles of blue and white acts as both a place of worship and a work of public art. The church is Chapel Almas de Santa Catarina or Capela das Almas—which means “Chapel of Souls”—and is one of the best examples of Portugal’s distinctive ceramic tilework.
The entire exterior of the church acts as a canvas upon which intricate blue and white tiles tell a story. More than 15,000 of them fit together to depict scenes from the death of Saint Francis and the martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. While the building was constructed in the 18th century, the beautiful tilework wasn’t added until 1929 by ceramist Eduardo Leite. The style, however, reflects many other palaces and churches built across Portugal centuries before which also have blue and white facades. These ceramic tiles are known as “azulejos” and are an artistic staple of the Iberian Peninsula.
The use of glazed and decorative ceramic tiles dates back as far as ancient Babylon when they covered magnificent castles. Later, colorful tiles with geometric designs became an important part of art and religious expression for Islamic empires. They were used to ornately cover the exterior and interior of luxurious palaces and mosques. Muslim potters created a luster glaze to give the tiles their distinctive iridescent finish.
By the eighth century, the Moors brought this style to Iberia when they ruled the peninsula. Seville, Spain became the first major center of the azulejos tile industry. In 1498, King Manuel I of Portugal visited Seville and was dazzled by the shiny tiles around the city. He brought the idea back to Portugal and had his castle covered in colored tiles. Since then it has flourished as a quintessential element of Portuguese art and architecture. The tiles cover the walls of churches, palaces, homes, schools, and parks and depict scenes from throughout history. In Portugal, the intricate detailing helps to keep a record of the country’s seafaring history and achievements especially from the Age of Discovery which lasted from the 15th to 17th centuries.
By covering blank walls, the tiles can tell a story about the history, religion, and culture of Portugal’s cities and villages, as well as serve as public artwork. While the Chapel das Almas isn’t necessarily one of the oldest examples of azulejos in the city of Porto, it is a masterpiece example of this iconic decoration.
9 More Facts About the Spectacular Azulejos Tilework:
- Despite the unmistakable blue coloring of the azulejos, the name surprisingly doesn’t come from “azul,” Portugal’s word for blue, but actually stems from the Arabic word “zellij” which means polished stone.
- While it is used as ornamental art, the tiles also help with temperature control inside of homes and buildings. The waterproof glazed surface protects walls from moisture and decay.
- The blue and white coloring was inspired by the elegance of Asia’s porcelain. At the time, porcelain was a luxury and symbol of wealth that Europeans began to try and emulate. The Dutch began making tiles in blue and white tones which the Portuguese imported for their buildings.
- Some say the blue coloring also comes from the obsession with the lapis stone at that time. This semi-precious stone was prized for its blue hue during the Age of Discovery and was thought to be connected with knowledge and insight. Perhaps, they covered their walls in blue to reflect this magical stone.
- Birds and leaves were also frequently used motifs in the artwork, possibly inspired by the luxurious Asian fabrics of the time.
- Some tiled walls incorporated written captions below the scenes as a way to tell biblical moments and stories. At the time, books were a privilege that few had access to so the walls served as a way to pass down stories.
- Portugal’s oldest azulejos factory is Sant’Anna in Lisbon. The factory has been producing handmade azulejos since 1741 and today, more than 90% of its production is sent abroad.
- Today, azulejos are a dominant decoration in every Portuguese city and village, covering everything from subway stations to benches and street signs. Private homes are also frequently covered in tilework both on the outside and the inside.
- Another one of the most popular destinations for seeing azulejos is the Sao Bento Station in Porto which has interior walls covered in vibrant blue scenes.
See the beautiful tilework of the Capela Das Almas and more dazzling azulejos during Northern Spain & Portugal: Pilgrimage into the Past.