The Art and History of Spanish Tiles

Written by Milan Jara

Spanish Tiles

The art and craft of making Spanish tiles dates back thousands of years, predating even the Muslim invasion in 711 C.E. These tiles were mostly produced in eastern and southern Spain and used in a variety of ways. Ceiling tiles were used on the interiors of buildings, but one of the most famous uses of Spanish tiles is as roofing material. They also were used to decorate fountains, courtyards, walls, and other surfaces. Spanish tiles are known for their bright colors and unusual color combinations.

Spanish Tile-Making in the Early Colonial Era

Talavera de la Reina in the Iberian region was the hub of tile-making in the 15th and 16th centuries. The city was well-situated to become a hub of ceramic arts due to its mix of settlers, many of whom had the artistic imagination and technical know-how to make beautiful, durable tiles.

  • The city was known as the City of Ceramics, or La Ciudad de la Cerámica.
  • Dutch settlers lived in the city, and their knowledge of Delft pottery techniques was key to the city's eventual success.
  • There were also many Arab settlers in the city, and their art and tools helped Talavera develop a distinctive style of tiles.

Mayólica Tiles

Some Spanish tiles are glazed to achieve a unique look. The distinctive glaze comes from the fact that the enamel used to glaze them includes metallic elements along with glass oxide. It makes the tiles durable and also gives them a lustrous gloss.

  • Mayólica tiles tiles have a distinct milky-white appearance.
  • The Islamic forces that invaded Spain heavily influenced the design of these tiles.
  • Sometimes, they are referred to as Talavera tiles, after Talavera de la Reina in Castilla de la Mancha, where many of them are made.

Talavera Tile Artists

Spanish tiles were and are so popular that those who collect them still know the names of some of the artists who painted and created them centuries ago. Two of the most famous Spanish tile artists are Clemene Collazos and Jose Mansilla.

  • Both men lived and worked in the 18th century.
  • Mansilla created a famous piece for the College of the Augustinian Mothers Talavera that included the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

Spanish-Style Tile-Making in Mexico

The city of Puebla, Mexico, was founded a decade after the Spanish defeated the Aztecs in 1531. The indigenous people of the area had a long history of producing earthenware goods. However, they did not use tin-glazing techniques or tools like a potter's wheel.

  • When the Church of Santo Domingo began construction in 1571, tile-makers from Talavera de la Reina were sent to Mexico.
  • The monks wanted the new church to have tile artwork that resembled that found at the churches they knew in Europe.
  • The Spanish artisans worked with local craftspeople and taught them their tile-making techniques.

Mexican Ceramic Tiles

Pueblan tile-makers blended their own techniques and artistic styles with what they learned from the Spanish craftspeople to develop their unique take on Spanish ceramic tiles. Their tiles were made for the same purposes, to be used as decoration, as ceiling tiles, and as roof tiles.

  • Early on, blue ceramic tiles were the most valuable because blue pigments cost the most money.
  • During the 18th century, yellow, green, and mauve tiles were very popular.
  • The number of tiles used on a building spoke to the wealth of the owners or sponsors of the building.

Unexpected Places to Find Spanish Tile

Spain, Mexico, and Portugal are filled with buildings that use historic or modern Spanish tiles. However, due to the popularity of this type of tile throughout the centuries, it can also be found in more unexpected places.

  • Homeowners in London often buy reclaimed Spanish ceiling tiles to use when renovating their homes.
  • The pool area at the YMCA on the West Side of Manhattan in New York City features a variety of Spanish art tiles.

Additional Resources

- Milan Jara

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