Text by Geoffrey Smith


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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel – 1563

Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

According to the Book of Genesis the generations after the Great Flood spoke a single language. They migrated to a land called Shinar where they built a city with a tower tall enough to reach heaven. However, God, observing this project, decides to “confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.” Precisely why the deity should do this is uncertain. Perhaps it was punishment for the hubristic intention of reaching heaven or maybe His aim was to spread cultural difference across the earth.

The fecundity of Bruegel’s imagination in translating this subject into paint is breathtaking. He triumphantly captures the sheer immensity of this insane architectural project, a structure so colossal that a cloud has formed at its highest extent - so immense that it encases a mountain. Labourers scurry about the many unfinished areas like so many ants, working on the timber frames used in the construction of the huge arches, climbing perilous ladders or erecting scaffolding. It is almost as though Bruegel is illustrating a manual of civil engineering techniques of the day. But as if to emphasise the scale of the task, many workers have built dwellings on the structure, presumably to avoid the time-consuming descent to ground level. And perhaps the obviously uncoordinated progress of the project is an indication that all is not well in regard to the grand plan. As we can see, the unfinished upper stages reveal a staggeringly complex ‘onion-layered’ design. Can the, admittedly massive, base support such an immense weight? Is it possible that the structure will ever be successfully finished?

Around the dominating presence of the tower lies a Flemish city complete with defensive wall. Church spires are hardly discernible, dwarfed by their overbearing neighbour. A bridge spans a river which powers a number of mills. The harbour is busy with all types of shipping. One wonders how the inhabitants view this monstrous project on their doorstep; a source of employment, certainly, but also a looming reminder of human folly and pride?

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In 1551 Bruegel left Flanders and travelled for three years through France to Italy. The architecture of the Tower of Babel was almost certainly based on that of the Coliseum which he saw in Rome.

Contemporary Works

c1560 Titian: The Tribute Money, London, National Gallery

1563 Paolo Veronese: Wedding Feast at Cana, Paris, Musée du Louvre

1565 Jacopo Bassano: Adoration of the Magi, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Further Paintings of Interest

Self Portrait with a Thistle

Albrecht Dürer

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait)

Jan van Eyck

The Ambassadors (Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve)

Hans Holbein the Younger

© Great Works of Western Art 2020