The Tower of Babel

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's dizzying details

By Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

The Tower of Babel (circa 1568) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen

This painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526/30-1569) depicts the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).

Noah's descendants constructed this tower to get as close as possible to the heavens and God. However, God saw this work as a sign of vanity. To punish them, he made the builders speak different languages, so that they could no longer communicate.

In this painting, Bruegel does not focus so much on the biblical tale as on the construction of the tower. He clearly shows thousands of people toiling away.

Beside the tower, Bruegel depicts a bustling port where boats have just finished unloading their cargo of building materials.
This must have been a very familiar scene for Bruegel who lived for many years in Antwerp and watched it develop in the 16th century into one of the most important port cities in Western Europe.

A crane with a large wheel is being used to lift goods out of the boats.
The wheel works like a hamster wheel turned by the force of the workers walking inside it which, in turn, turns the crane. Similar cranes were used in the port of Antwerp in the 16th century.

Not all the building materials are transported by boat.

We can clearly see how the stone is being cut in the surrounding landscape.

A nearby river provides the clay to make bricks.

The building materials are lifted using the cranes.

The dust from the red bricks and the white lime has left two red and white marks on the tower.

The falling dust has covered the workers and lifting equipment the same colour.

Construction at the top of the tower is in full swing, the tower has already broken through the clouds.

The new bricks are still bright red. Due to the lengthy construction process, the bricks of the lower levels already have a grey tinge.

We can make out a system of corridors up high, but no more lodgings seem to be under construction suggesting that this system is only being used to build higher.

The biblical tower was probably inspired by the by the great Babylon "ziggurat".

At the top of the enormous complex, with a square base thought to measure 91 meters and a total height of 91 meters, was a temple reached by steps and a ramp running the length of the façade.

This construction had long disappeared by the 16th century, but descriptions had been kept from which Bruegel got his architectural inspiration.

The Colosseum in Rome must have made a great impression on Bruegel.
Little after 1550, he went on a study voyage through Italy and France.

Bruegel is thought to have painted a smaller version of The Tower of Babel on ivory whilst in the Eternal City which, sadly, no longer exists.

The Tower of Babel (circa 1568) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen

The round shape of Bruegel's tower, which contrasts with the square shaped ziggurat design, was not the only element inspired by the Colosseum, Bruegel also copied the Roman monument's arches.

The flat landscape in which Bruegel has set his tower is typical of the Netherlands. He has even put a crow-stepped gable on one of the watchtowers. A keen-eyed viewer will note that Bruegel always adds such little details to his works.

On the third level, for example, a procession is underway.
Under the red canopy, a cleric is walking holding a monstrance, a vessel for communion wafers made of precious metal.

Bruegel painted several versions of The Tower of Babel.

This version puts particular emphasis on the construction process. The tower takes up nearly the whole scene, with virtually no reference being made to the biblical tale.

Bruegel worked in great detail; this painting depicts more than 1,000 characters.

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