The Tower of Babel [Pieter Brueghel the Elder]

Hundreds of tiny figures? Check. The Folly of Man as the main theme? Check. Must be a Brueghel.

As a good little Northern European, sixteenth-century humanist, Pieter Brueghel the Elder explored the theme of pride and human folly in many works of art, including Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and The Triumph of Death, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he would choose the Tower of Babel as a subject not once, but at least three times in his career. The story of the Tower of Babel occurs in the book of Genesis, when the world was so new that all the humans on earth still spoke the same language. The humans attempted to challenge God by building an enormous tower whose top would reach heaven to “make a name for themselves.”  Threatened by the power of their unity, the Big G was like “oh no you didn’t”, and came down from the heavens and “confounded their speech” so that they might not understand each other, allowing conflict to arise between nations.  Thus, the story serves as an explanation for the abundance of languages and war, but also as a warning against that most grave of sins--human pride.  It’ll get ya every time.

This is the second and largest version of the Tower of Babel painted by Brueghel, and it is effective at working around the logistical nightmare that painting such a scene presents. Indeed, Brueghel’s friend, cartographer Abraham Ortelius, once claimed that Brueghel “painted many things that could not be painted.” While this can be interpreted in many ways, it may refer to a certain inventiveness Brueghel possessed.  Ortelius compared Brueghel to Timanthes, an ancient Greek painter who famously painted a giant cyclops and artfully conveyed his size by placing tiny satyrs nearby measuring the giants’ thumb with their staff.  That’s right, sense of scale was once an innovation.  And one Brueghel could use well with his ability to paint in microscopic detail.  The painting is notable for the thousands of tiny figures engaged in the minutely detailed construction of the colossal tower, all of which construction methods are actually historically accurate, at least for Ancient Rome.                                

And in fact, Brueghel drew much of his inspiration for this image from a trip to Italy he undertook as a young artist.  While most artists went to Italy to study classical nudes, Brueghel characteristically couldn’t have cared less about chiseled abs, and only seems to have been interested in the landscape of the alps, ancient engineering methods, and the ruins of the Colosseum, which he used as the model for his Tower of Babel.  Many of the same engineering methods depicted would have been used in Brueghel’s day, just as the ships and barges seen on the lower left would have been used for shipping heavy materials in his own sixteenth century Antwerp.  The whole biblical scene seems to be taking place in a large Netherlandish city whose churches and fortresses are overpowered by the enormous tower, perhaps offering a critique of contemporary religious culture….Or perhaps not.

Brueghel liked to keep it enigmatic, and placing biblical stories in a contemporary context was not uncommon in his day.  In the bottom right appear the figures of King Nimrod and stonemasons supplicating to him.  King Nimrod of Shinar appears nowhere in the original Genesis story about the Tower, but by Brueghel’s time he had become strongly associated with the story as he was a “mighty one in the Earth” and therefore just the sort of little fat-head who would command such a tower to be built. At any rate, it provides just the right amount of narrative detail in a painting that is otherwise just a swarm of human activity in a spiraling tower of scaffolds and sin.