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Tiles Brightened The Biblical Cities

Even when Nebuchadnezzar's charioteers slowed their four horse teams atop the 300 foot high outer wall of Babylon to look at scenes of war and hunt on the painted and glazed tiles facing the inner walls, the rich colored tiles of Erech lay buried under the dust of centuries. For glazed tiles, protecting the sun-dried building brick, honoring the planets, and showing the life, glories, religion and costume of kings, were used very anciently.

Two yellow and brown lions of rectangular glazed tiles from the walls of Babylon's Procession Street leading to her palace and temple gates are now in Chicago's Oriental Museum. They were bordered with Babylonian rosettes of white tile petals circling yellow tile hearts. The blue tiles of the gateway were a ripple of subtly combined lapis lazuli, cobalt and turquoise blues with insets of dragons and bulls in ochre yellow.

In Egypt blue and green glazed tiles were made two thousand years before Tutankhamen's tomb was decorated with blue tiles, And China's glazed tiles colored her temples and palaces long before Christ. Her shadowcasting, cylindrical roof tiles had yellow, green and blue tile dragons, Fo dogs, birds and flowers at the eaves for good luck. Craftsmen spent a lifetime making tiles to beautify a single Buddhist temple. And travelers seeing the Manchu palace with its imperial yellow tiled roof thought it was covered with gold.


Crusaders returning to Northern stone and timbered cities told of golden domes, brilliant gateways, palace and mosque walls, altars and floors flowered like rich embroideries. Kashan, tile center of the East despite Syrian and Turkish tiles, shipped lustered, painted and molded tiles throughout the Mediterranean.

Chicago's Art Institute has a tile from a mihrab showing Kufic lettering and delicate flowers in a ruby red glow seen from the south in the afternoon light. Move past it and it changes. From the north it is a golden luster.

An ancient eight pointed star tile and its pointed cross counterpart show lustered figures in blue with white flowers. A loved turquoise tile with molded pattern enriched with cut leaf gold shows traces of mortar from some Persian wall. And a gateway spandrel of tile from Ispahan has ochre, blue green and olive green horses and hunters in lapis lazuli and cobalt amid flowers.

For the rich tiles of Ispahan and Tabriz under Shah Abbas rivaled the flowered rugs. Exquisite panels of painted and glazed tiles showed lifesize, handsomely dressed men and women in tree-shaded, flowering gardens.

Faience mosaic was cheaper than separately made tiles. Eastern craftsmen with chisel and short hammer strokes cut tile into pieces with V shaped backs, rasped them smooth and fitted them face down to a pattern of running vine, flowers, and all manner of intricacies. Plaster over the back held them together yet scarcely showed on the panel face.


The tiles in the Court of the Lions of the Moors' Alhambra palace at Granada thrilled 19th century visitors. The walls were faced five feet high with blue and yellow tiles bordered with blue and gold. Mosque, palace and garden offered the beauty and comfort of tiles. Fountains played water over grooved tiles of patio floors, cooling them with tiny running streams.,/p>

Spain tin-coated her tiles and painted them with dark and light blues sometimes outlined with black in the Talavera majolica style, or polychromed them in yellow, green, orange, brown and manganese purple. She lustered them, modeled them, and cut and inlayed them into mosaic.

She used cuerda seca (dry rope) technique, laying this greasy, purple line "dry rope" between the painted-on colors. It held them apart yet disappeared in the firing. This saved time, labor, and the cost of separate firings for each color.

Her cuenca (bowl) or impressed design, held in place the thick colors which filled these "bowls" and stood up in raised effect. But Eastern designs gave way to Christian symbolism particularly in cathedrals and cloisters.

Italy and France forsook the Gothic encaustic tiles (clay inlaid with other colored clays) for the more colorful and lustered majolicas (tin coated and painted tiles) that wore out quickly underfoot but charmed all with their beauty. While they lasted, noble ladies in Renaissance Europe walked on bright flowers in a golden glitter.


Tile art spread to Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Their famous tile stoves showed raised or molded designs which gave more heating surface. Early ones were green, or brown and yellow. Majolica tiles (tin coated) were polychromed green, blue, yellow or purple. Biblical stories, heraldry, landscapes and Classical figures in roundheaded arches were favorite patterns.

Dutch kitchens, cellars and dairies were tiled. A Dutch living room from the 17th century in Chicago's Art Institute shows blue decorated, white tiles on wall, fireplace, windowseats, and as wainscoting on another wall. The floor is of green and brown glazed tiles.

The red of early Dutch tiles gave way to light buff. Clay, pressed in a square mold, was next laid on a board between nails and trimmed to five and a half inches, allowing the half inch for shrinkage in the firing. The nail marks sometimes show.

A tin oxide coating gave the "porcelain white" ground. The design was "pounced" on with charcoal through a pin pricked pattern. Ships, windmills, Dutch boys, men with long pipes, or flower vases, made some of the allover, circled, or center designs. The first tiles were polychrome. Later ones had cobalt blue designs on white in the Chinese porcelain manner. Still later ones used purple instead of blue.

England's wood blocks impressed the clay for her white inlays (encaustic tiles). She scratched (sgraffito) design in the white slip coated tiles letting the red clay show through, then covered them with lead glaze. Her majolica favored the Delft styles. But her transfer printing color-decorated quantities of tiles at low cost, providing picture tiles for the homes of the people.


American Indians added their artistry to Spanish tile making. Churches, public buildings and homes in Mexico and our own Southwest have golden domes and towers, bright facades, and polychromed or blue and white walls, floors, and patios surfaced with tile. The thick colors stand up in raised pattern over the tile.

European colonists brought some tiles and imported others. But tiles were rare and used only to decorate fireplace or similar important place in the home. Eventually manufacture began here.

Rookwood's beautiful tile plaques in the dining room of the Hotel Sinton in Cincinnati once drew travelers from far and near. Today modern hydraulic machines press pulverized clay into tiles in quantity production. Some are beautifully decorated.

Collectors of old tiles look for traces of cement, or for the marks of the cockspur that held them apart in the kiln-three small dots in a triangle arrangement. A collector may spend years assembling a complete tile picture from an ancient wall. Sometimes a single tile is complete in itself.

In Persia this age old art continues. Lapis lazuli, cobalt, turquoise, green or red, yellow or purple polychrome tiles; white tin glaze brushed with metallic lusters ; or tiles enriched with raised or modeled design all trickle out to our Western world. And still the travelers in the East, like ancient historians and Europe's Crusaders, return home with tales of cities of gold gleaming in the sun.

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