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The Tower of Babel

Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Created: 1563
Dimensions (cm): 155.0 x 114.0
Format: Oil on panel
Location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

Pieter Brueghel was born in the Netherlands in 1525. He was nicknamed Peasant Brueghel because he so often painted the peasants in his native landscape. Brueghel painted the Tower of Babel at least three different times. In the 16th Century this biblical tale of Man’s disastrous attempt to reach heaven was a favorite theme. King Nimrod ordered a tower to be built that would reach the clouds. God punished him by making the workers speak in a babble of tongues. The result was of course complete and utter chaos. The work was never completed.

Although in the biblical version of the story the tower was built in Babylon, Brueghel has set his tower outside a busy Flemish city complete with a bustling seaport and a town visible just in the distance. The tower stirs with life. The tower is so enormous that even uncompleted it dwarves the men and landscape around it. Men are hard at work on every level of the tower while the king looks on, idle. In many ways this was the daily life of the peasants that Brueghel was so fond of painting. They had no choice but to work their fingers to the bone everyday of their lives with ultimately very little chance of ever rising above their stations. One can imagine when looking at the painting just how many years these men have been building this tower which ultimately is doomed to fail. There is such a sense of oppression within this painting. One can’t help but imagine how the people of the town might wake up every morning seeing this huge gray tower. The tower has taken over their very existence. There is a prevailing sense of doom and failure about this painting. It is nonetheless a magnificent and awe-inspiring painting.


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