Renaissance Art: The Tower of Babel

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.

 

babel1.jpg
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel (c. 1563)

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.

 

Works Cited

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

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8 thoughts on “Renaissance Art: The Tower of Babel

  1. I saw the wonderful picture of this painting and it just jumped off the computer screen at me. The different elements fascinated me along with the light and dark, sun and shadows. It also interested me how the different levels of the tower have different colors. It is truly amazing to compare the 2nd and 3rd paintings. Each has a total different feel. I wonder how much time had passed between the two, what life changes (if any) Bruegel had experienced. The Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art (JHNA) has a great article about these works and what was going on in Antwerp at the time of the paintings. Thanks for your attention to Bruegel’s amazing work.

    Works Cited
    http://jhna.org/index.php/past-issues/vol-62-2014/295-tower-of-babel-and-harmonious-community

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    1. Wow, Jack, that page looks very informative! I didn’t get to do more than scan part of it, but it looks like it comes closer to giving the painting the analysis it deserves than I did. History can certainly give a deeper meaning to art. Thank you for including that link!

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  2. Eli
    Your choice in paintings is awesome, I could look at it for hours studying every detail. I love Bruegal and the topics of his work. The Tower of Babel intrigues mewith the humanism depicted. Our natural tendency toward pride in what we consider our own intelligence, wisdom, accomplishments and ability is evident in any dispensation. Bruegal’s interpretation of this biblical story is an example of this pride being punished (1). The lower left corner tells a story all in itself as servants bow to King Nimrod while simultaneously other workers continue dutifully toward the goal of building a tower to heaven. The detailed illustration of fruitless effort by masons, engineers and laborers suggests the pointlessness of so much human endeavor.
    You are right that the region around the building looks dead and beaten down. It is gloomy as you mention but also alive in activity. The ships in the harbor for example show commerce and trade. Also to the right I love how small and minute as it pales in the shadow of the tower.
    1 http://www.wga.hu/html_m/b/bruegel/pieter_e/06/
    Thanks for sharing- rebecca

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rebecca! I like that page you linked to with the snapshots of the details in Bruegel’s art. It seems that he gave a lot of attention to every single square inch of his art.

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  3. I really enjoyed your blog on the “Tower of Babel”! Your description could really paint a picture if one was not provided!

    When I look at the “Tower of Babel” it makes me think of a society that does not appreciate that greatness they have already built and concentrate on wanting what essentially they cannot have. I agree with your view of this scene and I also see that from all the work and energy being put into the Tower of Babel to get to Heaven instead of taking care of the town they built and the earth around it. I don’t know if that is completely off, but that was another thing the Tower of Babel made me think of.

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    1. Excellent thoughts, Amanda! No, I don’t think you are off base; I think your parallel is completely valid. I had not thought of it like that before. Even in the first few chapters of the Genesis account, this idea showed up. Adam and Eve had a beautiful, vast garden that was free game—except for one tree. Even though they had so many good things at their fingertips, they let themselves be lured into taking the forbidden fruit. Both Adam and Eve and the builders of Babel saw that being discontent and reaching for what is forbidden does not end well.

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