Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s
The Tower of Babel
Painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in about 1563 and long treasured by the Kunthistorishes Museum Vienna (the Museum of Fine Arts of Vienna), this incredible master work has been the object of almost religious veneration for centuries. It is the largest, and the oldest, of the two remaining copies of the same title by Bruegel; a first version, a miniature painted on ivory, is now lost.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Tower of Babel (oil on panel, c.1563)
A litle history, provided we deem the book of Genesis a genuine historical source, may help understand what it was that induced Bruegel to paint it and not only once, but three times in all.
“After the Deluge, Noah’s descendants settled in the lowlands of Sinear, not far from the Euphrates. They spoke a common language and formed a single community. Genesis 11 tells their story: ‘And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ In addition, the tower had to serve as a landmark to keep people together, despite the fact that God had commanded Noah and his sons to ‘replenish’ the earth (Genesis 9:1) after the Deluge. Also, the tower could be used as a safe haven in case of a new flood.”
Thus, it is no wonder that “God looked down upon these industrious souls, and judged that in their ambition they were trying to equal him. So he decided to punish them with the Confusion of Tongues. Since people could no longer understand each other, they were scattered over the earth at last. The site of the event would from that day on be known as Babel, apparently meaning ‘confusion’…” (Art and the Bible)
And however it was, not only Bruegel but a legion of other artists, among whom stand out Gustave Doré and Lucas van Valckenborch, a close contemporary of Bruegel, also felt irresistibly attracted to the mystery the Tower of Babel has, over the centuries, aroused. By the way, below is Bruegel’s “little” Tower of Babel which, in fact, seems to have been used as a model by Van Valckenborch to paint his own.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The “little” Tower of Babel (oil on panel, c.1563)
That Bruegel was a disciple of Hieronymus Bosch (“El Bosco”), that other most famous and enigmatic master of the Dutch Renaissance, may have been a factor, too, in his attraction to it. His choice of the Tower as the motive for an extraordinary painting which, in all truth, must be regarded as his life’s work (and one entirely different to all his other paintings at that) most clearly points, in my view, to a sort of initiation work as were frequent among the great artists of his time. In effect, great personalities like Leonardo, Dürer, and others, were at the time deeply immersed in esoteric schools of thought where the notion of cyclic ages in the world’s history was prevalent; next, both Hieronymus Bosch and Bruegel were no less obviously familiar with them; and finally, both the Garden of Earthly Delights, divided in three panels representing those ages in orderly succession, and the Tower of Babel signaling, like a beacon, the pass from one of those ages to the next, attest to it.
Hieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights (oil on panel, c.1500)
But I will better stop here. In all this I might be trespassing certain norms of conduct that preclude the diffusion of hermetical teachings too widely; and besides, this article was intended to be a short one… and it is becoming too long.
Thanks for listening,