The Tower of Babel

Wars have been fought, unions formed, and families parted all in the name of the Bible.

Given the severity of these possibilities, the fact that this scripture has also inspired many great works of art may seem of little consequence, but the Tower of Babel is an important piece of human history, catalogued for modern enjoyment. 

Truly Monumental

Peter Bruegel the Elder completed his most famous version of The Tower of Babel in 1563. He created three depictions of the same structure, the first of which was lost and the last of which now resides in a museum in Rotterdam. 

This, the largest of the three, can now be seen at the KunstHistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. 

The overwhelmingly central figure in this painting is a large, spiraling structure that dwarfs everything in its vicinity. The tower appears to be under construction in the painting, which is a central plot point in the story behind the work.  

In the foreground, a group of men (the leader of whom appears to be a very important figure) approach what appear to be workers. Even though they are substantially closer to the point of perspective than the building, the tower still looks massive compared with the figures. 

All around the tower, other buildings appear as mere pebbles compared to the boulder that is the Tower of Babel. On one side, what are apparently great ships appear to be about as tall as one level of the giant structure. 

Biblical Inspiration

Bruegel is not the only artist throughout history to have painted a version of the Tower of Babel, and that’s because it is a central figure in the Bible’s Book of Genesis. 

Evidently, the story attempts to explain why so many different languages exist on Earth. To do this, it describes a Babylonian attempt to build a tower that reached heaven. Displeased with this pursuit as a show of arrogance, God disrupted the building process by confusing the language of all the workers. 

This meant that the tower could never be completed, since no one could communicate well enough to execute building plans. After this point, people of different languages scattered around the globe and the Tower of Babel fell into disrepair as the ground zero site for this humbling event. 

Because the Roman Colosseum was similarly viewed as a show of excess, Bruegel’s depiction bears obvious similarities to the famed structure. 

Other artists also chose the Colosseum as a means of inspiration for their version of the Tower of Babel. In reality, the structure that actually inspired the biblical story was likely much smaller, and looked more like a ridged pyramid. If this temple was, indeed, the one that inspired the story in Genesis, then it was destroyed in 689 B.C. by an Assyrian king. 

Reacting to Renaissance

The Tower of Babel was painted in a style known as Mannerism, which came about in the aftermath of the Renaissance. Where Renaissance painters attempted to be hyper-realistic in aspects like proportion, Mannerists frequently exaggerated features. This tendency is evident in Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel, as it is unnaturally massive. 

It wasn’t just buildings that were depicted this way in Mannerism—the human form was frequently made to appear unnatural in some way, either too perfect or too flawed, such as in Madonna with the Long Neck.Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel will never fall out of reverie or the public eye so long as the Bible remains an important focal point across the world.