History of Portuguese Tile: the “Figura de Convite”

fdec stairway

Firstly, what is a “figura de convite“?

figura de convite is an invitation figure made of  *azulejos, tiles. They’re life-sized tile cut-out images of a finely dressed nobleman or lady, halberdiers or a footman that were affixed to walls at the entrances of palaces, on stair-landings, and patios to welcome visitors during the eighteenth century in Portugal and Brazil.

* “Azulejo” is the Portuguese term for a glazed tile. The word comes from Arabic الزليج  “al zulaycha” meaning little polished stone, and is not to be confused with “azul”, blue, which it is often mistaken. It is true that there are many blue azulejos, and that can explain the confusion, but, historically, the first glazed tiles that appeared on the Iberian peninsula, brought by the Muslim Moors in the thirteenth century, were glazed in mainly hunters green, burnt sienna, and mustard yellow.

coupleThe figura de convite appeared in Portugal around the year of 1720. The innovation was the first time in the history of tile fabrication that the medium deviated from the square composition and embraced the outline of the cut-out, thus opening up a new world of tile designs. Its creation is attributed to the master tile maker who went by the monogram PMP, and whose life story has been lost to history.There’s speculation that possibly the artist’s initials were those of Padre Manuel Pereira, a clergyman and patron to a large tile making workshop (shop name unknown) in Lisbon. His disciples are thought to have produced tiles for palaces and churches all over Portugal and Brazil. But there is no exacting evidence and secure proof that he really is or was the famous monogram PMP…it’s a mystery of art history.

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“Diamond Extraction” by Brazilian artist Carlos Julião 18th century watercolor

During the first part of the eighteenth century and up until “The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755″, Portugal was at the pinnacle of its wealth and extravagance, arguably the richest European country during this time period, and all due to the gold and precious gem extraction from its colony, Brazil, and the slave trade from Africa.

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Around the year of 1730, yellow detail work began appearing in the figures, mimicking the use of gold thread being used in cloth embroidery work, demonstrating the vast amounts of gold coming into Portugal from Brazil. It was also around this time that the powdered wig hairstyles of the figures began to visibly shift to a less showy display, recording the period’s shifting tastes.

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Innovations of the figura de convite was ongoing with figures like this Roman centurion (left) and rare musical duo with a wiry dog (right).

"Enter My Lordship"

“Come in your Lordship”

Words of greeting were sometimes incorporated into the compositions, like this fellow whose beckoning:  “Come in your Lordship”. The art form of tile making flourished in Portugal during the eighteenth century with the country’s peerless affluence, and produced one of the greatest world-wide advancements in tile making: the figura de convite. 

two mock book jackets

Two “mock” book jacket ideas for CUT FROM THE EARTH

The figura de convite is one of the artwork highlights in my forthcoming art-based historical novel Cut From the Earth, a story of Portuguese tile and its surprising makers — The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 — and the wisdom of nature to guide heal.

In Memory of All Saints Day 1755: The Great Lisbon Earthquake

Mocambo Lisbon

The Mocambo Barrio on the outskirts of Lisbon

On this day 258 years ago with the vast majority of Lisbon, Portugal’s population at church, earthquakes struck the city followed by tsunami waves and mass fire. The “Princess” of Europe’s capitals was destroyed. Today, the grievous day is often referred to as, “The Great Lisbon Earthquake”. I would like to send out a prayer to those who were lost on this day in 1755 and the subsequent months that proceed these horrific events.

All Saints Day 1755

Artist rendering made after All Saints Day 1755

My novel-in-progress, Cut From The Earth, strives to recreate Lisbon before the tragedies, while Portugal was at the pinnacle of its colonial wealth and at its height of artistic developments in tile making. I’ve tried to bring to life what it might have been like on this disastrous day, and afterwards — and what was lost forever.

The exact origins of All Saints Day are uncertain. Although, after Christianity was legalized in Rome by Emperor Constantine in 313 AD a common commemoration of saints and martyrs of the known and unknown began to appear in various regions and on different dates throughout the Church’s reach.

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Fra Angelico Early Renaissance Italian painter

The primary reason for establishing a common feast day was due to the desire to honor the great number of martyrs, as there were not enough days of the year for a feast day for each martyr and many died in groups defending Christianity in the late Roman Empire. Therefore, a common feast day for all saints and martyrs seemed logical and appropriate. According to accounts, it was Pope Gregory III (731-741 AD) who dedicated an oratory in the original St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of all the saints and martyrs on November 1st in Rome, thus officiating the date.

pao do deus oven

pão-por-Deus (God’s bread)

All Saints Day in 1755 Lisbon was not only a day to attend mass, it was also a day to make offerings, to light candles, and was to be a day of placing flowers upon the graves of loved ones. In addition, it was the day when groups of children went door-to-door before mass with cloth bags or baskets to receive chestnuts, pomegranates, and little cake-like breads called pão-por-Deus (God’s bread) .This tradition of giving and receiving pão-por-Deus would become a vital link to survival for those that lived through the dreadful day and those that followed, as they fled Lisbon, begging for God’s bread in the countryside.

Today may we remember the saints and martyrs and all those who have gone before us, while we prepare for All Souls Day tomorrow, November 2. It is a good day to read your favorite saint’s story (whatever your beliefs and affiliations) and to remember those who’ve come before us.

Click here for recipe: pão-por-Deus (God’s bread)