Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel

by Alexandra Tuschka


The story of the Tower of Babel is a parable; a warning against the arrogance of man. For these - as the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament tells us - wanted to build a tower that would reach up to heaven. Thus they wanted to create a monument for themselves. The people we are talking about here are not many generations removed from Adam and Eve. They are the descendants of Noah. God, however - in the Old Testament a punishing, unyielding fellow - prevented this by taking away their common language. From now on, the construction of the tower could not go on, because communication was not possible. The city of "Babel" may come from the Hebrew word "balal" meaning "to confuse". 


Two paintings of this subject have survived; a third, small one on ivory is lost. Possibly Breugel also processes impressions of his immediate surroundings of Antwerp (then "Antdorff"), which with its more than 100000 inhabitants was one of the few major cities in Europe and was constantly growing. 


A crane is perched on a ramp of the tower on the right. It takes three men to operate it. A stone hanging from the crane is being hoisted. One of these cranes is said to have stood on the market in Antwerp. The reproduction of technical details and the transport work gives us a testimony of construction practices of that time. The whole village seems to have helped in the construction of the tower, for this also the waterways are used. In the hierarchy, the unskilled workers were at the bottom, the stonemasons at the top. They can be seen in the foreground paying homage to the ruler. For this they have put their tools aside as a matter of course. According to tradition, the man is King Nimrod; here decorated with scepter and crown. 


The architecture of the tower itself tapers towards the top. Romanesque and ancient influences are evident. The white, solid exterior walls are pierced at the top right, allowing us to see the red bricks inside. But even the exterior walls are not finished. To show what an ambitious project this building is, work is going on in all places at the same time. Small construction huts were erected on the ramps so that the workers could save the long distances from home to work. As a contrast to the mighty tower, it casts a shadow on the city behind it. Thus, it becomes insignificant not only by the lighting, but also symbolically. There are indications that the work must originally have been even larger and was trimmed on two sides. 


With the hustle and bustle, the viewer's gaze does not find a foothold. This depiction, which has an almost "hidden object"-like character, influenced many descendants. It was frequently copied and is the most famous depiction of the tower-building episode in the history of Western art.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel

Oil on canvas, 1563, 114 × 155 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna