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What are all these Ceramic birds?
The significance of the swallow in Portugal.
It’s early – around 4:00 am and the sun is not yet up, but I’m awake. A swallow is perched on the windowsill of our bedroom window calling to another swallow who eventually arrives on the sill. The two of them start chirping away – a sort of serenade ritual that I’ve come to look forward to nearly every day (although I wish they wouldn’t start so early). The arrival of the migratory swallows in Portugal after spending the winter in Africa marks the start of spring. That’s about all I knew about swallows.
Walking around our local community, I notice ceramic birds of assorted colors and sizes on the walls of many patios and verandas. Some walls have these birds grouped together like a flock, some walls only have two or three. Stopping by one of my favorite shops in Cascais, there are more of these birds – on the walls and in baskets. What are all these ceramic birds? Short answer: they’re swallows (Andorinhas in Portuguese). And they play a significant role in Portuguese culture.
How it all got started.
Portuguese artist and caricaturist Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro (1846-1905) was best known for his ceramic work, particularly his production of decorative plates and figurines. One of his most famous designs is the swallow, which he incorporated into many of his pieces. The swallow was a popular motif in Portuguese ceramics in the late 19th century, but Pinheiro's version was particularly distinctive. He used bold, graphic lines to create a stylized, almost abstract, image of the bird, and he often arranged them in groups of two or three. Although he patented his ceramic swallow design, he was most likely unaware of how popular these little birds would become and how many Portuguese artisans would create their own version of this bird.
The significance of the swallow.
In Portugal, swallows are widely recognized as symbols of good luck. In Portuguese folklore, they are often associated with love and fidelity, (which is deep-rooted in Portuguese culture), and the arrival of good news. It is common to give newlyweds or young couples a gift of swallows as a symbol of love.
Swallows return to Portugal in the spring to build their nests and to have their offspring, returning to the same nest each spring. This symbolizes home and family.
Swallows mate for life symbolizing love, faith, and loyalty.
Portuguese sailors often would have a swallow tattooed on their arms. They considered the migratory swallow as a symbol of good luck. And since the swallow always returns to the same nest, this was a symbol for safe travels.
Ceramic andorinhas and décor.
There are many ways to display ceramic andorinhas in your home, office, or garden. While the more traditional swallows are made of ceramics, you can also find clay and metal versions. Some artisans prefer to create more authentic reproductions while others prefer more modern, abstract interpretations.
Andorinhas come in many sizes and colors. The traditional color of the ceramic swallow is black (this was the color originally designed by Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro). Other colors often used are cobalt blue and white.
Since the swallow mates for life, it is suggested that at least two be displayed together. As migratory birds, they fly in flocks which is why people choose to display them as if they’re in flight. This resource from Luisa-Paixão details how to display a collection of swallows.
Starting my own collection.
The more I researched the significance of the swallow in Portuguese culture, the more I wanted to start my own collection, so I recently purchased three little birds which, at the moment, are on display on my dining room table along with tea candle holders from Porches Pottery. I have my eye on a few more (varied sizes, colors) from Luisa-Paixão. I think it will also be fun to pop into different shops during our travels throughout Portugal to find unique swallows to add to my little collection.
A symbol of good luck?
Now that I understand the significance of andorinhas in Portuguese culture, I’m even more thankful to hear the swallow serenade on our bedroom windowsill in the early morning hours. I’m going to take it as a symbol of good luck (although I already feel pretty lucky to be living in Portugal)!
Where to purchase:
If you live in the United States, you can purchase ceramic swallows and other artisan ceramic pieces online direct from Bordallo Pinheiro. Their factory warehouse is in New Jersey so there are no Customs charges.
If you live in Portugal, most gift and souvenir shops offer swallows for sale. One of my favorite places to purchase Portuguese handcrafted products online is Luisa -Paixão. In addition to shipping throughout Portugal, they also ship to all European Union countries (VAT is included). The company ships outside of the EU such as the United States, Canada, or Switzerland, but deliveries may be subject to Customs charges.
Publisher’s Note: For the spring and summer months, instead of publishing a post every week, Our Portugal Journey will publish twice a month on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Look for the next issue in your email inbox (or on the Substack app) on Thursday, May 18th.
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Until next time…