The Tower of Babel

Reaching for the Heavens

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the prominent artist of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance, depicted the Tower of Babel in three paintings. Sadly, the first version, an ivory miniature, is lost. However, the second painting, oil on panel artwork completed in 1563, can be admired at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The third version, a smaller oil painting on wood from 1564, currently resides in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, c.1563. Oil on wood panel, 45 in × 61 in (114 cm × 155 cm). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, c.1563. Oil on wood panel, 45 in × 61 in (114 cm × 155 cm). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Throughout his extensive career, Bruegel crafted numerous panel paintings illustrating religious events. The Tower of Babel was inspired by the Biblical story found in Genesis (chapter 11: verses 1-9), where God punishes humans for their arrogance.

According to the Old Testament tale, God punished humanity in three ways. First, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden after discovering Original Sin. Then, there was the Great Flood, a consequence of people’s many wrongdoings. Lastly, God, concerned about the pride and presumption of the ambitious residents of Babylon, disrupted their shared language. Instead, different languages were introduced, leading to confusion and the cessation of city construction. According to the Bible, “that is why the city was called Babel.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, c.1564. Oil on wood panel, 24 in × 29.3 in (60 cm × 74.5 cm). Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, c.1564. Oil on wood panel, 24 in × 29.3 in (60 cm × 74.5 cm). Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Bruegel’s Tower was likely influenced by the size and structure of the Colosseum in Rome. He had firsthand knowledge of the Colosseum from his travels in Italy. However, during Bruegel’s time, the Colosseum, once a grand symbol of human greatness in the supposedly “eternal” city of Rome, had fallen into partial ruin.

Constructed with pale ochre stone, Bruegel’s Tower in the Vienna painting soars high enough to penetrate the clouds in the vibrant blue sky. To grasp its immense size, one can easily compare it to the nearby four-story fort (lower right) that barely reaches the Tower’s base level.

Detail at the right side, with the original rock formation

Detail at the right side, with the original rock formation

Bruegel’s meticulous attention to detail is evident in this artwork, showcasing his renowned style. The Tower takes center stage, reaching skyward with its numerous windows and visible construction work. The painting is filled with so much activity that it can be overwhelming at first glance, challenging the mind to comprehend it all.

King Nimrod and his men are depicted observing the construction efforts of the workers. It’s worth noting that the King and his men were not originally part of the biblical story. Bruegel intentionally included them to emphasize the King’s pride and showcase how his sins would be witnessed by everyone.

Detail with King Nimrod and entourage visiting the builders. Bruegel’s signature is at the bottom right.

Detail with King Nimrod and entourage visiting the builders. Bruegel’s signature is at the bottom right.

If you examine the scene with the King closely, you’ll notice a tiny detail: a peasant or worker, who has turned away from the King, squatting on the ground to relieve themselves. Bruegel always had a preference for portraying the authentic everyday life of peasants, including their less glamorous moments.

Detail of resting workers or peasants and a squatting man

Detail of resting workers or peasants and a squatting man

The most remarkable aspect of the Tower is that we can observe people living within it, suggesting that the construction has been ongoing for an extended period. Bruegel skillfully portrays individuals watering their flowers, hanging laundry, and even cooking outdoors over a roaring fire.

Detail at the center, everyday life of the Tower’s dwellers

Detail at the center, everyday life of the Tower’s dwellers

In a clever manner, Bruegel takes an ancient biblical story and transforms it into a depiction of ordinary daily activities that resonate with the people of his time. This talent of incorporating everyday life into his artwork was a recurring theme in Bruegel’s body of work.

Words of wisdom

“I invent nothing, I rediscover.” —Auguste Rodin

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” —Voltaire

“One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.” —Lewis Carroll

“No one has ever become poor by giving.” —Anne Frank

Bibliography

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