A tile consists of a fired clay slab whose thickness is thin; one of its two faces is glazed with oxide coloring particles. They were (and keep being) used mainly as decorative and / or impermeable coverings for architectural works.
The first known testimonies about Andalusian tiles (“azulejos andaluces” in Spanish) come from 1240, when Ibn Said described the work of glazed tiles made in al-Andalus (the name given to the Muslim territory of the Iberian Peninsula during the Christian Reconquista) and applied to the flooring of houses. There is also a document from 1379 that calls “Masters of Seville city tiles” to those who worked on the construction of the Seo of Zaragoza (one of the names given to the cathedral of the Spanish city of Zaragoza).
Birth of Andalusian tiles
In the first evolutionary stage of Andalusian tiling, it stands out the use of the “dry rope” technique. It consists of stamping on square clay tiles a profile or drawing line without glazing, which keeps separated the different colours so that they are not mixed before the firing of the clay.
The dry rope technique is an ingenious process in which the greasy matter of the dry rope limits and closes off the aqueous solutions with which the tiles are painted. The oven solidifies the colours, as well as it melts and removes the greasy rests. These tiles can be seen in the spandrels of the arch of the Wine Gate (Puerta del Vino) in the Alhambra. There are some other variants of this process such as those that allow the creation of tiles with reliefs and edges.
It would be necessary to go back to the Caliphate period (912-1010) to find the first samples of glazed ceramic decoration, not only in Andalusia but also in the West. The curved bricks from the beginning of the mihrab dome in the Mosque of Córdoba are magnificent examples of these works. They were painted with vitrifiable oxides in copper green and dark manganese profiles on slip, coming from Medina Azahara (Córdoba) and Medina Elvira (Granada).
Later, during the Nasrid period, they started to create smooth tiles, which were painted in blue and gold with characters from the 13th and 14th centuries. It was the potters from Malaga who, attracted by the ancestral techniques that Syrians and Persians brought to this city, perfected the use of gold, metallic lustre and cobalt blue in ceramics, as well as the use of opaque varnish due to the inclusion of tin oxide in the glaze. This brilliant production radiated beyond the borders of the Nasrid kingdom, illuminating buildings such as the Mosque of the Andalusians of Fez and multiple constructions erected in Egypt, where the city of Al-Fustat acquired great importance as a focus of diffusion and distribution of this work, known as “work of malica” or “malicha”, that is to say of Malaga. This phenomenon also occurred throughout the entire Christian territory of the Iberian Peninsula.
Types of Andalusian tiles
From among all the types of Andalusian tiles that have ever existed, there are two of them that were so popularly used that have become the most representative tiles of the Andalusian art. They are the edge tiles, and the plain or “pisanos” painted tiles.
We describe them down below.
Edge or basin tiles
Some well known examples of this kind of tiles are those made with the technique of relief found in the cathedral of Seville and the church of Santa Marina in the same city. In both cases, the edge tiles works date from the 13th century.
Almost 200 years later, in the middle of the 15th century, in the same Spanish city of Seville, it took place the transition to a second great era of Andalusian tiling. It started to be manufactured the so-called “work” tiles (azulejos de labores), later called “edge” tiles (azulejos de cuenca o arista), more suitable for the type of Renaissance drawing.
The technique used to create the edge tiles consists of pressing a mould on an unfired clay tile. This mould engraves the desired theme and highlights the line of drawing in relief edges, leaving the areas that will receive the color sunk in “basins”. When the full drawing is distributed between two tiles, they are called “two per board” (dos por tabla). They are used mainly in ceilings, and they have to be carefully placed one right next to the other.
They have achieved enormous success throughout the Spanish region of Andalusia and, although the province of Seville is the main production centre, they are also made in the Secano de la Alhambra (in the city of Granada), where it can be found the pottery of the Tenorio family, authors of the cladding of the Sala de los Abencerrajes of the Royal House.
In white, cobalt blue, manganese, black, green and gold, this type of tile is present in monuments such as the Old Cathedral of Coimbra and the church of the Jerónimos of Cintra (Portugal). They evolve from those that imitate lacework to those that look like weaving and brocade, and depict strange animals and characters such as satyrs or unicorns (Carlos V Pavilion of the Alcázar, in Seville).
Plain or “pisanos” painted tiles
At the dawn of the 15th century, the Italian Niculoso Pisano arrived to Seville, becoming the introducer of the painted tile. His procedure facilitates the painting, with suitable pigments, of scenes or altarpieces that present Italianizing compositions on large surfaces formed by tiles.
The tile base, with a first firing, is equivalent to the canvas in the case of oil painting, or to the wall in the fresco decoration, then subjected to a second and definitive firing. From the hands of this Italian painter emerge beautiful motifs such as the Visitation in the chapel of the Catholic Monarchs in the Alcázar of Seville.
Another great ceramist and painter, Cristóbal de Augusta, will follow in the footsteps of Niculoso Pisano and will leave some large tile skirting boards in the rooms of Carlos V del Alcázar. He will also create the cloth studied in 2004 by the restorer Juan José Lupión, under the altarpiece of Saint John the Evangelist in the convent church of Madre de Dios (Mother of God) in Seville.
In the 17th century the flat polychrome tile kept being produced, although with some clear Baroque influences and a proliferation of devotional themes. At this very moment the so-called “olambrillas” emerged: they were small-sized pieces of tile that included an entire motif and that appear combined with clean bricks (without glazing) in the flooring.
With the passing of time, especially from the 18th century onwards, it became more frequent the panels with images of historical interpretations, such as those found in the women’s hospital in Cadiz or in the Chamber of Deputies of the City Council of Cordoba. However, the most characteristic scenes of this century (in which popular themes are imposed) are the so-called “montería” or hunts, with landscape backgrounds as in the splendid example of the stairs of San Juan de Dios in Granada. And it is in Granada where it was also developed a trend of tiles with stylized floral themes of poppies and birds, which still continues in the wainscots of houses. In all these cases, the polychromy loses protagonism in relation to the brilliance of the past epochs: the main used colors were ocher, manganese, blue and yellow, and practically disappear the green inks, which will reappear later and will predominate in the 19th and 20th centuries in the popular series.
Do not confuse “tiling” (alicatado) with Andalusian tiles
It is necessary to differentiate between Andalusian tiles and works that are specifically called tiling (“alicatados”, from the arab word “alocat”). These “alicatados” consist of cutting or scraping monochrome pieces called “aliceres” in many different forms to adapt them to a previous drawing with modules.
The motifs are usually stars (called estrellerías), which are made of a piece in the form of a star-shaped polygon surrounded by others (called almendrillas and azafates), polygonal shapes (lacerías – strapworks) and even Arabic inscriptions or arabesque reliefs (atauriques) consisting of stylizations of leaves and flowers.
In the majority of cases, these compositions present white, green, blue and honey-like colours, or a beautiful set of small tiles with metallic and gold reflections.
They were imported from the Orient, where the Persians already knew and perfected these architectural coverings since ancient times, creating elegant tiled walls, borders and floors of the most imposing buildings of al-Andalus. They were skilfully executed by Almohad craftsmen who, since the 12th century, imagined complex drawings that followed impossible orders.
This technique reaches insurmountable heights, surviving for centuries and being extended to other places of the Spanish geography. An example of it resides on the simplest compositions of the Torre del Oro (Tower of the Gold) in Seville, in whose interior you can contemplate an alternation of green and white rhombuses, which evolve to complicated strapworks and star-like shapes.
There are still remains of this splendour in the Cuarto Real de Santo Domingo (13th century) in the capital of Granada, with arabesque ornaments. You can also find them in various rooms in the Alhambra, specifically in the Dos Hermanas room, in the Mirador de Daraxa and in the Salón de Comares.
Where to find Andalusian tiles nowadays
In the Plaza de España (Spain Square) in the city of Seville, the architect Aníbal González included these Andalusian tiles with great prodigality, composing beautifully made panels about the most outstanding historical scenes of each Spanish province.
However, at the end of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century, the old procedures for obtaining tiles practically disappeared and there was a tendency towards mass industrial production. The traditional Arab ovens, with several outlets to the vault to favour a better firing of the pieces, can hardly be found in Andalusian localities where in the past there was a great tile tradition.
Granada and Seville still maintain some workshops that recover traditional ornamental lines. Such is the case of the Sevillarte workshops (in Sanlúcar la Mayor), Mensaque (Santiponce) and the so-called Sevillian Artistic Ceramics (Mairena del Alcor) workshops, which recover the dry string technique. This manufacturing tradition also takes place in the towns and cities of Los Palacios, Villafranca, Tomares and Alcalá de Guadaíra, the latter being one of the main artisan centres in Andalusia with several workshops specialising in traditional Andalusian Sevillian tiles.
There are also several ceramic workshops in the area called “Fajalauza” (within the area called “Albaicín”) of the Spanish city of Granada. The name of the place, which comes from a gateway to the city, extends to the polychrome tin pottery so characteristic of this region, in which expressions of Muslim craftsmanship such as metallic lustre or dry rope are still maintained.
Fajalauza pottery is the popular glazed and decorated clay pottery, originally made in Granada’s Albaicín, with a pottery tradition that dates back to the 16th century, although it was not known by that name until the first half of the 19th century. It remained unchanged in a style and signs of identity characterised by the tin glaze and the blue-grey or green decoration with vegetal motifs (with the protagonism of the pomegranate, symbol of the region), birds, strapworks and heraldic motifs with double-headed eagles.
Finally, it needs to be pointed out that over the last six hundred years, ceramic vessels and plates have been irretrievably lost in Andalusia, due to their fragility and low appreciation when they become deteriorated. However, many tiles can still be admired firmly adhering to the walls of palaces such as the Alhambra, cármenes (small arab-style palaces next to the Alhambra), as well as convents, churches, patios and even homes in this southern region of Spain.