In the book of Genesis, the famous story of the Tower of Babel appears. “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name […]. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower […]. And he said: […] let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech and they left off to build the city.” (Gen. 11:4–8.)
King Nimrod, who appears as builder along with his entourage at the bottom left of the painting, is not mentioned in the biblical text. Only the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who collaborated with the Romans, combined records from different sources to create the legend that became accepted: the over-zealous King building beyond earthly aspirations.
In the book illumination of the Early and High Middle Ages, local buildings that were less than monumental were used as models for the architecture of the Tower of Babel. Starting in the 16th century, artists orientated themselves on the Mesopotamian type of step-shaped ziggurat (temple tower), which, however, was rectangular rather than round.
Bruegel’s monumental composition had several forerunners in Netherlandish painting, but his work became the most famous classic among the Tower of Babel depictions and was frequently copied in many different variations.
The sense of scale is provided by the Flemish-style port city, which is impressively tiny in comparison to the tower.
With meticulous precision and encyclopaedic interest Bruegel depicts an abundance of technical and mechanical details, from the supply of the building materials in the busy harbour...
...to the various cranes and the scaffolding on the unfinished brick foundation.
He sets the workers’ dwellings into the stone outer structure, which blends elements of classical with Romanesque architecture, and they appear to be more than merely temporary.
By anchoring the building on the rocky slope, Bruegel creates the impression of static equilibrium.
Reaching up to the clouds, the building, however, is optically distorted…
This is an artistic gesture, on the one hand enhancing the impression of the building’s monumentality, and on the other hand alluding to human hubris and the impossibility of completing the tower because “the Lord confused the language of all the earth”. (Gen. 11:9.)
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the ElderKunsthistorisches Museum Wien
© Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery. A Brief Guide to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 2010