How To Read Paintings: The Tower Of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

A Biblical story realised in astonishing detail

The Tower of Babel (1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image source Wikimedia Commons

This superb depiction of The Tower of Babel, painted by the Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1563, is teeming with intricate features for the viewer to explore. In fact the great, half-built tower is so enormous that it is easy to miss some of the finer details of the landscape around it. Notice, for instance, how behind the tower there is a large town surrounded by a wall, beyond which lies farmed countryside. The diminutive size of the town’s buildings tells us just how large the tower is becoming. Squeezed onto a strip of land between the town and a nearby waterway, the tower has an overbearing feeling to it, as if it has swollen to ungainly proportions thanks to the ambition of those who are constructing it.

The subject of the painting is the Tower of Babel, which stands as an emblem of the prideful ambitions of mankind and is said to explain why the world has so many different languages. For when God saw men working on their tower with its ambitions towards heaven, he confused their speech and scattered them around the world so they could no longer understand each other.

The story is told in the Book of Genesis 11:1–9:

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” […] But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel — because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Genesis 11:1–9 (New International Version)

Bruegel’s painting is magnificent in its imaginative description of the tower and the sense of enterprising activity going into its making. As it looms over the nearby town, casting a long shadow beyond it, there is the sense that the tower has become an all-consuming project. The construction is only partially complete, yet even at these colossal dimensions the tower is poking through the clouds and is set to grow bigger still.

Detail of ‘The Tower of Babel’ (1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image source Wikimedia Commons

A particular detail that emphasises the tower’s ceaseless growth is the way that the artist has painted the inner construction in a shade of terracotta red, contrasting with the cream-coloured walls of the outside. It is a brilliant detail, for not only does it draw our eye into the complex heart of the construction — with all its layers of half-built arches and scaffolding — it also suggests that the building is somehow alive like a human being, with a second world of flesh and organs pumping beneath the epidermis.

A view of the interior of the Colosseum. Image source Wikimedia Commons

It is thought that Bruegel was influenced by the Colosseum in Rome when painting the innards of the tower. Bruegel had visited Rome in 1552–1553. Views of the Colosseum’s interior show the same layered effect of arches and buttresses. In the Colosseum, these sloping terraces were the underpinning to the seating sections or cavea (Latin for “enclosure”) of the amphitheatre. In Bruegel’s painting, similar supporting arches give the sense of the tower’s continual rise towards the heavens.

Contemporary engraving capturing the ruinous atmosphere of the Roman monument. Print of the Colosseum in Rome, published by Hieronymus Cock in 1551. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The reference to the Colosseum in Rome maybe more than just visual. Through the middle ages, Biblical scholars often compared the imperial world of Rome to the city of Babylon — where tradition held that the tower was built. For these scholars, both cities represented alienation from God. For centuries, Rome persecuted Christians; its eventual fall and ruin was therefore taken to symbolise the hubris of the pagan empire.

In the foreground of the painting, a group of townsfolk are shown gathered around a regal-looking individual in a cape and crown. The man represented is Nimrod, the legendary conqueror of Babylon in the 2nd millennium B.C., who was traditionally thought to have ordered the construction of the tower.

As a Biblical figure, Nimrod is described as a king in the land of Shinar, the southern region of Mesopotamia. In the painting, he walks through a stonemasons’ yard where some of the workers have stopped to bow down to him. Nimrod is taller than the men around him, and with a regal sceptre and a pointed finger, he is busy directing the workmen around him.

Nimrod and his admirers. Detail of ‘The Tower of Babel’ (1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The passage of these enormous blocks of stone can be traced from the stonemasons’ yard to the tower itself. Bruegel’s attention to detail is brilliantly displayed in the winches and cranes that range over the building, along with the sheer variety of human activity that peppers the outer walls.

Detail of ‘The Tower of Babel’ (1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image source Wikimedia Commons

In one section, a wooden crane known as a treadwheel crane is shown lifting a stone block up to a higher level. Two men inside the wheel use their weight to turn the wheel (two more men would be inside the wheel on the other side) and winch the ropes. Treadwheel cranes were often used during the Roman period and the Middle Ages in the building of castles and cathedrals.

Detail of ‘The Tower of Babel’ (1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image source Wikimedia Commons

In another section, we can see a small village already beginning to blossom on the outer edges of the tower, presumably as homes for the workers. There are thatched cottages, lines of washing, a blacksmiths, cartwheels being constructed, and even a ledge with window boxes for plants.

Through these moments of detail, Bruegel breathes life into the story of the Tower of Babel. The painting is an invitation for us to consider not just the moral side of the tale but the very human one too. Through the painting, the enormous amount of civic energy that went into the construction is made palpable, transplanting the Biblical story from ancient Babylon to contemporary Netherlands.

If you liked this, you may also be interested in my book How to Read Paintings, an examination of fifteen of art’s most enthralling images. Read it on various platforms here.

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