Bruegel's 'Tower of Babel'

One of the most famous works in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s collection is the ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted around 1560. Zoom in on the details and rich history of this painting, which still captures our imagination.

A Tower of Confusion

The story of the Tower of Babel is told in the book of Genesis, chapter 11, verses 1-9. Babel, a city in the land of Shinar, was the first city built by the descendants of Noah after the Great Flood. Their leader, Nimrod, planned to build a tower of bricks and lime that would reach to the heavens. He was conceited and acted against God’s will. God condemned these ambitious, vain plans and confounded the construction. He changed what was once a nation with one language into numerous peoples that were spread across the face of the earth, each speaking a different language. From then on the different peoples lived in a ‘confusion of tongues’.

 

Symbolism

The story of the Tower of Babel contains a universal message. The biblical construction of the tower symbolises man’s ambition to attain the highest possible goal. It also symbolises the eternal struggle between mankind’s ambition and his hubris, which is mercilessly punished by God. Mankind blindly trusts his own capabilities and the unbridled possibilities of technology. God’s punishment of this arrogance symbolises man’s insignificance and mortality. Bruegel too is somewhat vain in his attempt to paint the tower that was designed to reach to the heavens, thus reinforcing the message of the story. In Bruegel’s depiction of ‘The Tower of Babel’, God’s punishment has not yet been enacted: the bricks are still being carried up the tower and the harbour below is a hive of activity.

Frame-filling

The colossal, monumental tower fills almost the entire painting.

A feast of details

Bruegel has given remarkable consideration to the colouring of the tower. At the top, the bricks are still bright red, but in the lower levels they have weathered and become lighter in colour.

This subtlety of detail is also visible in the artist’s depiction of the human activity around the enormous tower. Bruegel has painted more than a thousand people. On the left at the foot of the tower men can be seen carrying sacks filled with lime, used for making mortar, to the top of the tower, hence the white strip going up the tower. To the left of it is a red strip, which marks the passage by which bricks were hoisted up the tower.

A procession can be seen on the third level of the tower, passing by an arch in the form of a church window. Below the procession, knights on horseback are climbing the tower. There is also a great multitude of small human figures in the harbour beneath the tower.

Click here for more dizzying details on Google Cultural Institute.

Tower of Babel

This video shows and explains "The Tower of Babel" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The details in the painting are brought to life through animation!


The Tower of Antwerp

Bruegel made ‘The Tower of Babel’ around 1560 when he was approximately 35 years old. He visited Rome and took inspiration from the Colosseum for the tower’s architecture. Towards the top of the building, however, the arches take on the more pointed form found in Gothic cathedrals.

The Tower of Babel was a popular theme in the 16th century, especially in Antwerp, where Bruegel worked. Antwerp was a busy harbour city, visited by ships from all over the world and numerous languages could be heard on its streets. This made the Old Testament story of the confusion of tongues all the more relevant. Bruegel painted two other versions of the ‘Tower of Babel’. One is in the Kunsthistorisch Museum in Vienna. The painting is smaller than the version in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and the construction of the tower is depicted at an earlier stage. The other version is a miniature painted on a piece of ivory. The whereabouts of the latter work are unknown.

 

Five centuries of travels

‘The Tower of Babel’ undertook an incredible journey from the moment it left Bruegel’s workshop 450 years until it arrived in the museum in 1958. Only part of its travels can be traced. Around 1600 the painting was in the art collection of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, along with other paintings by Bruegel. Around 1620 the work was back in Antwerp.

Stamp

From a stamp on the reverse of the panel, we know that a century later it was in the possession of Elisabeth Farnese, the second wife of King Philip II of Spain.

Collector D.G. van Beuningen

It was not until 1935 that the painting resurfaced in a commercial art gallery in Paris. The Rotterdam-based art collector Daniël George van Beuningen purchased the painting a year later for the enormous sum of 120,000 guilders. ‘The Tower of Babel’ was given by his estate to the museum, together with the majority of his collection, in 1958.

D.G. van Beuningen next to the 'Tower of Babel'.
D.G. van Beuningen next to the 'Tower of Babel'.
The 'Tower of Babel' in Van Beuningen's living room.
The 'Tower of Babel' in Van Beuningen's living room.

Did you know?

D.G. van Beuningen hung ‘The Tower of Babel’ in his living room above a stove, on which – according to his children – he would fry an egg on Sundays.

Late developer as a painter

The oeuvre of Pieter Bruegel the Elder is unusual. For much of his life he devoted himself to making highly detailed drawings, which served as designs for engravings. Bruegel worked mainly in Antwerp, a flourishing centre of trade and culture, and from 1560 also in Brussels.

Bruegel began painting late in life. Initially he focussed on landscapes but later also made paintings with religious subjects. The approximately fifty paintings that Bruegel painted in the last ten years of his life, including ‘The Tower of Babel’, are of an exceptionally high quality. Bruegel died in 1569. His two sons Pieter and Jan followed in his footsteps to become renowned painters.

 

Prints by and after Bruegel

‘The Tower of Babel’ is the only painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, but the print room contains numerous designs for prints that were engraved by other artists.

Around 1560 Bruegel drew designs for a series of prints of the seven deadly sins. The prints were engraved around the same time by Phillips Galle and sold by the Antwerp-based publisher Hieronymus Cock. The museum owns three of Bruegel’s design drawings for this series.

The museum also owns a print after a design by Bruegel, engraved by the Austrian artist Anton Joseph von Prenner. This etching was made in the 17th century after the version of ‘The Tower of Babel’ in the Kunsthistorisch Museum in Vienna.

 

Pieter Bruegel (I), One of the Seven Virtues: Temperantia (Temperance), 156	pen and brown ink, indented, bequest: F.J.O. Boijmans 1847
Pieter Bruegel (I), One of the Seven Virtues: Temperantia (Temperance), 156 pen and brown ink, indented, bequest: F.J.O. Boijmans 1847
Philips Galle, Pieter Bruegel (I), Caritas (Charity), circa 1559, engraving, bequest: Dr. J.C.J. Bierens de Haan 1951
Philips Galle, Pieter Bruegel (I), Caritas (Charity), circa 1559, engraving, bequest: Dr. J.C.J. Bierens de Haan 1951

Collection D.G. van Beuningen