The Mathematical Proportion of 17th-Century Tile Patterns

Working with the proportion relations among all the elements of architecture, the Portuguese architects created a series of geometric pattern tiles in different scales.

In Coimbra, the sacristy of the Mosteiro de Santa Cruz boasts one of the most beautiful decorative programs from the first decades of the 17th century. Nothing was left to chance: the barrel vault was decorated with octagons and rhombuses ornaments in bold relief; the walls were tiled with various sizes of polychrome patterns, and the floor with a mesh of black and white marble tiles.

According to Friar Nicolau de Santa Maria, the proud chronicler of the Congregation of St. Augustine, the sacristy was one of the most beautiful not only in Portugal but in all of Europe. The room dazzled with its various architectural orders, a correct proportion between height, length and width, and the same rhythm in the distribution of ornamental panels:

The three vaulted panels of the sacristy correspond under the cornice to three other panels decorated with fine & lustrous Lisbon tiles.

Mosteiro de Santa Cruz de Coimbra sacristy. © Teresa Verão.

Still, in the chronicler’s words, there was also a strict correspondence between the vault geometric decoration and the pavement design:

The pavement under the sacristy is symmetric to the vault, all in flattering white & black flowered stone as above.

This ornamentation, arranged with rhythm and symmetry, was essential to provide decorum to the spaces that welcomed the preparations and celebrations of divine worship.

The dissemination of the culture of the treatises of architecture, vehicles of a language that, since Sebastiano Serlio, was perfectly adapted to the discourse of classical architecture allowed the creation of a decorative coherence.

It was even the Italian treatises that inspired the creation of the largest 17th-century pattern tile, used to harmonize the scale, from the large motifs in the vault to the lower level of the walls, closer to the observer, decorated with patterns of smaller motifs.

The concern with the correct dimensioning of architectural elements, a fundamental issue in the 16th-century architectural treatises, served as a guideline for the tile patterns placement on the sacristy walls. Undoubtedly, Giacomo Vignola’s Regola delli cinque ordini dell’architettura, with the simplification of mathematical calculations of proportions, was an essential contribution for mathematical culture to gain a firm foothold and consolidate itself as common scholarly knowledge among architects and patrons.

Mosteiro de Santa Cruz de Coimbra chapter room. © Teresa Verão.

Next to the sacristy of the Mosteiro de Santa Cruz in Coimbra, completed in 1622, under the direction of royal architect Pedro Nunes Tinoco, was the chapter room, also rearranged with a magnificent decorative campaign in those years, to house São Teotónio’s tomb, the first prior of the monastery. To ennoble the house, all the architecture, including the geometrical tiles, was painted with gilded ornaments:

Before this transfer was carried out, he first ordered to gild not only the Capella of Saint Teotónio, but the entire vault of the Chapter Room where the Capella is located, and the tiles with golden roses, and in the same way, he ordered to gild the arch through which one enters the same Chapter, which was all united in gold.

The monastery church also had a similar tile decoration, with the geometric language of mathematics asserting itself as an originator of the decorative discourse, both for the “enxaquetados” tiles and for the pattern tiles, which are part of the same cycle of opulent campaigns ornaments from the late 16th and early 17th century.


CRAVEIRO, Maria de Lurdes. O Mosteiro de Santa Cruz de Coimbra. Coimbra: Direção Regional de Cultura do Centro, 2011. ISBN 978-989-95354-3-5

SANTA MARIA, Nicolau de. Chronica da Ordem dos Conegos Regrantes do Patriarcha Santo Agostinho. Segunda Parte. Lisboa: Oficina de João da Costa, 1668.

Mosteiro de Santa Cruz, Coimbra

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