Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a notable painter from the Netherlands region. One subject that came up multiple times in his paintings was the Tower of Babel. Genesis 11 in the Bible tells the account of men uniting and trying to build a tower into heaven. In the midst of their efforts, God intervened and confused their language, which suffocated the project. Bruegel’s painting depicts the tower very vividly.
This was Bruegel’s third depiction of the Tower of Babel. His first one was lost, but unlike Bruegel’s second Tower of Babel painting, this piece has an especially gloomy, depressing feel to it (Narusevicius 31). The right side of the tower appears to be the port. At the port, people and supplies pump life into the project. In this scene, however, dark clouds are coming from that side. They seem to portend the doom of the project. Bruegel utilized shadowing very effectively here.
The region around tower looks dead. Below the tower, the ground has been beaten by construction activity. Shrubs lack greenery. The town in the background is nothing spectacular. As this tower has grown, it seems to have sapped the life out of the area.
Perhaps there is symbolic meaning in the gloom evident in the scene as the tower passes through the clouds. It is interesting to note that haste is evident in the work done above that level. The top is not the picture of a order. As the tower reached into the heavens, it seems that the crews worked in haste and desperation. Once the tower started to encroach on what what they viewed as God’s territory, the project’s outlook started to look bleak. This could have spoken to the humanist ideas that were spreading in Bruegel’s day. With the growing acceptance of humanism, man’s view of himself and his own abilities was elevated. Many have interpreted Tower of Babel artwork from that time-frame as attempts to remind society of the dangers of pride (Narusevicius 33).
As we probe this painting, there is another possible allusion in Bruegel’s brush strokes. This tower bears a striking resemblance to Rome’s Colosseum. In the Genesis account, we learn that Babel turned into a place of confusion. In Bruegel’s time, the new Protestant movement attacked Roman Catholic Church. The tower of the Catholic Church seemed to be falling prey to confusion. Joanne Morra mentions a fascinating fact in her analysis of the piece: “Catholics and Protestants cite[d] the Tower of Babel during the sixteenth century as a ‘symbol of the dissolution of Christianity into warring factions’” (Morra 202). These dissensions may have been on Bruegel’s mind as he crafted this piece of art.
Morra, Joanne. “Utopia Lost: Allegory, Ruins And Pieter Bruegel’s Towers Of Babel.” Art History 30.2 (2007): 198-216. Academic Search Premier. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.
Narusevicius, Vytas. “The Labours of Translation: Towards Utopia in Bruegel’s Tower of Babel.” Wreck 4.1 (2013): 30-45. AHVA. University of British Columbia. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. http://www.ahva.ubc.ca/WreckArticlePdfs/44_102213_082702.pdf