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The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca.1525-1569). Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen – Rotterdam

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a generation older than Tintoretto, Veronese and Bassano. His ‘Tower of Babel’ however is equally a work of monumentality, quite uncommon in the art of Flanders and Brabant. Bruegel’s monumentality lies not in the individual traders who built the grand architectures for their own pride. With Bruegel, people are small and numerous as ants, working feverishly and anonymously. The people are driven by a common illusion to construct, much as the medieval period built cathedrals and churches to reach the easy living of the Baroque period. But the structure that is built in Bruegel’s picture is menacing and evil. The tower is huge at its base, sheer solidity. Its arches resemble the bows of the coliseum of Rome in which so many Christians died. Bruegel visited Italy and he had certainly seen the coliseum. As compared to Renaissance refinement, this colossal ancient Roman building may have oppressed the artist with the awe of its robustness and weight. Bruegel was used to the delicacy of Gothic. He admired the Brabant rural landscapes and the alpine peaks. The heaviness of the coliseum and the solidity of the Pantheon must have left a lasting impression of the painter. The tower of Babel is a Roman coliseum heavily stowed one layer upon the other, with a labyrinth of interior corridors and halls as indeed one can find in the coliseum.

The activity around the tower is intense. Ships bring on materials. Much of the environment has been destroyed for the works. Ovens are burning to heat the bricks to hard stone. The tower is so large that it has engulfed a small river and it is standing partly in the sea. An inclined plane spirals around the structure. All walls are heavily buttressed. The spiral may seem narrow, but tens of people could stand side by side on it. Thousands of small figures can be seen on these flats and a hive of activity is taking place. There is even a procession advancing on the third floor, led by two high flags and a red baldaquin is brought forward. The people of the procession wear torches.

Bruegel has shown in miniature all large cranes that could be used in the sixteenth century. Since the tower is close to the sea, we think immediately of the port of Antwerp and of the multitude of cranes the Antwerp harbour must have had to handle the freights. A fort that remembers vaguely of Antwerp’s ‘Steen’ guards the entry of the tower, as the Steen guarded the entry to Antwerp’s inner ports. There is so much to discover in this painting. The red bricks are heaven upwards on the left so that Bruegel painted this part in red. Next to this scene is a white road, white probably of the mortar used for the masonry of the tower. Some of the cranes hang dangerously over the border of the spiral flats but they are housed in wooden structures fixed to the walls.

Why did Bruegel made such a painting, so different from all his other themes? Maybe he felt that Baroque would come. Bruegel worked for Rudolph II, the German Emperor and he had seen the growing wealth in Rome and Antwerp, maybe even of Venice. He had seen the works of the architects Bramante and Michelangelo on the Saint Peter cathedral of Rome. Bruegel’s tower of Babel expresses maybe some of the premonitions of a man still linked more with the countryside and its villages and with the delicate spiritual refinement of Gothic. Bruegel may have feared the boldness, the internationalism of the new visions and the freedom of mind of the new artists. The picture is a work of horror, of surprise at wealth, of fascination with vanity, exactly as is told in the Bible. It is a very moral picture that understands well the message of the Bible. Bruegel could have painted a very slender tower, lightly buttressed as the Gothic cathedrals. Instead this is a brute architecture, rude, without imagination, solid and aggressive. Bruegel seems to want to indicate to his fellowmen of Antwerp that they were building a tower of Babel in their port. They were building a structure not based on spiritual values but on relentless and unforgiving trade. A structure based on loans and investments, on merchandise that is bought and sold various times while still at sea, a structure of speculation that could collapse at God’s will. Bruegel sensed a disaster, a fear that is present in many Bible stories as well as in the New Testament. This was the fear that man could become so proud as to forget how humble he was in the elements and in the power of God. Bruegel sensed with artistic intuition a grandiose human structure that might fail at the whim of the Gods or nature. These feelings were very pessimistic when compared to the joy and outburst of colours and emotions of Baroque art. Jacopo Bassano showed not an Apocalypse, but a scene of saving. There is darkness in his painting but also much white of hope. Bassano’s picture gave the message that God provided for the righteous. Bassano ‘s optimism would win in the next century and Pieter Bruegel the Elder would be seen as a genius painter of course, but as one of a revolved time, a time of Medieval fear of a destruction of the world by the Apocalypse. The Renaissance would not forget this Apocalyptic vision, but transcend it and thus master it.

The Deluge and the Tower of Babel in the Bible

The Deluge and the building of the Tower of Babel are very ancient stories told in the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

Before the Flood, God saw that human wickedness was great on earth and that human hearts contrived nothing but wicked schemes all day long. So he decided to rid the earth of humans. But a righteous man, Noah, pleaded to Yahweh and won his favour. God said to Noah to prepare an ark out of resinous wood, of reeds and to caulk it with pitch inside and out. The Bible cites details of the ark: how long it was and how wide. There had to be a roof, an entrance, and three decks.

God established a covenant with Noah and with Noah’s sons Shem, Ham and Japheth and their wives. All would go into the ark together with a male and female of all living creatures. A double quoting in the Bible specifies seven pairs of all clean animals and one pair of all unclean animals. Noah received only one week to board all the animals, but he succeeded although he was six hundred years old.

Then all the springs burst and all sluices of heaven opened. It rained for forty days and forty nights. The ark lifted on the water and all human beings perished except the ones in the ark. When the waters had subsided, Noah sent first a raven out, then a dove but both returned to the ark since there was no land to be found. After seven more days Noah again sent a dove. This one returned with in its beak a freshly picked olive leaf. When he sent the dove a second time, it did not return anymore. Noah looked out and saw that the surface of the earth was dry.

Noah built an altar and burnt offerings to God from the animals. God was pleased with this. He promised never again to curse the earth because of humans or to strike down living things again as he had done. Then God again established the covenant with Noah. As a sign of this covenant he put his bow – the rainbow – in the clouds.

The Bible cites the descendants of Japheth, Ham and Shem, Noah’s sons. One of Ham’s grandsons was Nimrud, who was the first potentate on earth. The Bible tells that Nimrud was ‘a mighty hunter in the eyes of Yahweh’. Nimrud’s empire contained Babel, Erech and Accad all in the land of Shinar. Later, Nimrud’s son Asshur built Nineveh and other cities. Of the cited cities one is quite well known by archaeologists. Erech was Uruk in Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia was Shinar, the land between and around the two rivers the Tigris and the Euphrates with the Euphrates on the West and the Tigris on the East. These rivers drain the Zagros Mountains into a delta. Upstream of the junction of the two rivers lied Uruk, now in ruins. The ruins of Uruk were excavated and examined. The town consisted around 2500 BC of a few thousand houses surrounded by a broad wall. The town may have held between ten thousand to twenty thousand people. There was a high ceremonial mound in the town on which stood ziggurats. In Uruk scribes wrote on clay tablets in a cuneiform script. About half a million of these tablets were found, testifying of an intense economic and religious life.

The Book of Genesis tells that the whole world of these people still spoke the same language. In a valley of Shinar they made bricks and baked them in fire. They told themselves they would build a city and a tower with his top reaching heaven. For mortar they would use bitumen. God saw the city and tower and remarked that all the undertakings of the people wit ha single language would succeed, nothing they planned to do would be beyond them. So he went down and confused the people and their language so that they could not understand one another anymore. Yahweh scattered them all over the world and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel.

Pieter Bruegel made two paintings of the tower of Babel. In the second one, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna. The tower is indeed surrounded by a town and Nimrud supervises the works. Bruegel had not seen the ziggurats of old Babylonia that the Bible writers must have had in mind. In Babylonia, ziggurats with temples on the top could reach hundred meters high and must have been indeed almost a world wonder for the humble Jewish shepherds. These towers may have been called gates of the Gods or Bab-ili. The most ancient structure Bruegel recognised was Rome’s coliseum and that was probably the example he used. Like in the Bible story, he showed the brick ovens and the tower reaching the clouds.

The story of Noah relates of a flood. There are many reminiscences of a great flood that occurred thousands of years ago before the written memory of history. Several floods must have happened around the Eastern Mediterranean or in ancient Sumeria near the Persian Gulf. Scientific evidence has been found of floods of large magnitude in the Near East. A complete flood of the earth may have happened as told in the bible, but that story may refer to the then known world of the Hebrews, which was the region of the Tigris and the Euphrates, old Sumeria and Mesopotamia. Floods happened before historical times when the Mediterranean was formed, when the waters of the Atlantic burst through the Straits of Gibraltar. The Caspian Sea may have been formed when the Mediterranean Sea burst through the Bosphorus. Or a huge tsunami may have flooded the coasts when a volcano of the Mediterranean exploded forming the Greek Island of Santorini. That disaster destroyed completely the Minoan culture of Crete.

Evidence has also been found of a flood that must have occurred around 3000 years BC at the cities of Ur and Shuruppak in Sumeria. Sumerian tablets speak of a flood and a priest-king Ziusudra or Utanapischtim who built a boat to survive. Several tablets have been found which give a consistent story of Ziusudra. His story resembles Noah’s tale in many points such as the loading of the boat filled with animals, the flights of the dove and the offering after the flood. When mention is made in the Book of Genesis that Abraham came from Ur, one looks at these ancient stories as real memories of the people of the Tigris and Euphrates regions.

It is remarkable however how memories of these cataclysms remained in the minds of the people and then were recorded, also in the Bible but not in the Bible alone. The catastrophes may have induced a primeval fear in the tribes of the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean. We can imagine travelling storytellers recounting these ancient stories of such powerful origins that only the wrath of the Gods could be imagined to have caused them. Such catastrophes then formed part of the very nature of the Hebrew people and were the basis for the aescathology of the Bible, the waiting for a next overwhelming disaster. The Jews however could not accept such a horrible ending.

They combined the final disaster to a mystic union with their God Yahweh. This union was a consolation, a hope of redemption and of a heavenly paradise once lost but regained. The early books of the Bible do not speak of this union, but it is most clearly worded in the Apocalypse of Saint John in the New Testament. The Book of Genesis instead contains the promise of the Covenant. God promised that the earth would not be drowned again. The sign of the covenant was the rainbow, a tangible grand sign that could indeed permanently be used as a proof that the words of the storytellers were true. Yahweh of the Book of Genesis is endowed with human character traits or maybe Yahweh’s traits were enforced on the Hebrews. God repents from having brought the Deluge. Such an attitude for a God is highly different from the attitudes of the Gods of the Greek, Romans or Babylonians. The Greek Gods did as they pleased, in calculated revenge or in anger and they did not repent. They couldn’t care less for people. They did interfere frequently in human affairs however, also on demand of humans, as the Yahweh of the Bible. This concept of intervention of God or of Gods in the personal life of humans is thus also a very old concept that led to the belief in a personal God. The Hebrews combined the old divine intervention with the morality of a God. This brought their God closer, more accessible and made him more reassuring.

The tower of Babel was a convenient way to explain the differences in languages and it holds something of the fascination of wandering rural tribes for the cities and the high structures of Babylonia’s famous ziggurats. Like the Deluge it is a story of a disaster, as may have struck a ziggurat during an earthquake. Again we feel the power in these ancient stories of memories of important catastrophes and see how these stories were combined, explained and used by the Hebrew writers in their epic of God’s acts.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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