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The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Kunsthistorisches Museum Guide



The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel

The Tower of Babel , made by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1563, is a beautiful and yet enigmatic painting today at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna but originally from Antwerp, Belgium.


Here, the artist represented for his second time the Biblical episode of the construction and later destruction of the Tower of Babel, a city supposedly located in ancient Mesopotamia, around present-day Middle East.


Many are the messages Bruegel included in this work, and some of them today can tell us a great deal about his time, what worried and what interested his contemporaries and about the struggles between Protestants and Catholics. Also, The Tower amazes us with its details and the incredible precision and mastery of its author.


Here you will find a complete guide to understand and enjoy this masterpiece, with history, description, analysis and full explanation of its subject, together with a few practical info!


 

In this article:


Artwork Profile and Analysis: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

 



Artwork Profile and Analysis: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder



OVERVIEW


Title: The Tower of Babel - name in artist's language: Toren van Babel (Dutch) - name in current location: Turmbau zu Babel (German)

Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569)

Execution: 1563

Commissioner: Nicolaes Jonghelinck

Style: Flemish Renaissance

Subject: Biblical narration of the Tower of Babel

Technique: oil on oak wood panel

Dimensions: 114x155cm / 45x61 in

Original Location: private mansion of Nicolaes Jonghelinck in Antwerp

Ticket: Yes (full price: 21€)



THE ARTIST: PIETER BRUEGHEL THE ELDER AND THE FLEMISH RENAISSANCE


Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569) and his time

There is much about Pieter Bruegel that we don't know, including his date of birth and hometown. Bruegel was likely born a peasant in a small village in today the Netherlands (near Breda) and these poor origins, along with the manual jobs he would always exercise, meant that the documents surrounding his childhood years likely never existed or were not considered worthy of keeping.


What we know about his early life comes from his post-mortem biographers and from supposition: since there is a first mention of him in Antwerp in 1551 when he registered in the painters' guild as a free master, and since the registration normally took place at the age of max. 25, we can calculate his birth around 1525 and 1530.


A probable self-portrait of Pieter Bruegel the Elder
A probable self-portrait of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

We know for sure that Bruegel was born into a period in history that would be remembered as difficult and transitional, especially for people coming from what are today Belgium and the Netherlands. The Protestant revolution was taking over in Northern Europe and political turmoil was shacking these territories, making life extremely unstable and uncertain. At the same time, overwhelming revolutions were also disrupting the arts and culture world, in this case not for the worst. The 16th century was the time when the Italian Renaissance, now mature and turning into Mannerism, would strongly influence the entire continent, reaching Bruegel.


Indeed, right after registering himself as a free master (meaning that he had completed his apprenticeship and could now exercise), in 1551 Bruegel set off for Italy in search of inspiration. He would return in 1554, forever changed but never forgetful of his origins.


From 1554 to 1563, Bruegel lived in Antwerp - a lively and wealthy city with a strong presence of rich merchants - where he worked as a designer of prints for publishing companies. The printing of books was also a relative novelty and images had recently begun to be included as well. By the end of this decade spent in Antwerp, Bruegel had found his true passion and was almost solely painting.


Newly married, he eventually moved to Brussels in 1563, where he would stay until his premature death in 1569, leaving two sons behind. Even though their father would not live enough to train them, they would become such famous and skilled painters as to give our Pieter the nickname "the Elder" to distinguish him from his eldest son Pieter and to separate the generations.


Born a peasant or at least in a small town far from the main urban centers, the artist is sometimes called "Peasant-Bruegel" for his excellent ability to depict the everyday life of those who came from the countryside, The Peasant Wedding one of the best examples.

However, throughout his own life, Bruegel would get closer to the main intellectual waves of his time, and build a solid cultural background for himself, then reflected in the sharpness and depth of his works, and that would distance him from his poor origins.


➜ His paintings, which rarely included religious scenes, set themselves and their author apart from the standard. They were mainly commissioned by the Flemish aristocracy - usually closest to the emerging Protestant cultural clique - and thought to be appreciated by it.



The Flemish Renaissance

The artistic style of Pieter Bruegel the Elder belongs to what is called "Flemish Renaissance", a section of the Northern Renaissance, so-called to set it out from its popular precursor and model, the Italian Renaissance.


In fact, although Renaissance is immediately linked to Italy and the Peninsula is where some of the greatest masters of art operated, Northern Europe was not untouched by the infinite changes brought by the re-discovery of ancient philosophy and culture, and by Humanism (philosophical thought that put the human being at the center of the universe and rejected the religion- and theological-centered vision of the world typical of the Middle Ages).


The ideals spread by the Renaissance in culture and arts soon reached artists and creatives from the whole of Europe, who began to apply the new ideas to their works, the influence of the Italian style sometimes more and sometimes less visible.


Villagers On Their Way to Church (1550) by Simon Bening, another exponent of Flemish Renaissance
Villagers On Their Way to Church (1550) by Simon Bening, another exponent of Flemish Renaissance

In the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), Renaissance lasted one century (the 16th) and had Antwerp as its center. There, where religion was always perceived differently than in Southern Europe and folklore and traditions were particularly strong, the new use of perspective, depth and proportion resulted in new genres, leaving often behind the classic religious and Biblical subjects in favour of nature and everyday life. This was also possible because the Low Countries and the Flanders in particular were trade lands, where merchants crowded the main ports. Merchants were rarely interested in propaganda and often commissioned works for their own residences and for private use, opening the art scenes to new possibilities.


As for Bruegel, the Italian years of his life surely had an impact on him and his style, but he followed the lead of his Flemish peers: the landscapes of Italy fascinated him more than the art of Michelangelo and Raphael and, although he surely saw their masterpieces and learned from them, he would remain strongly linked to his origins.



HISTORY AND COMMISSION


Differently from other paintings by Bruegel, The Tower of Babel is signed and has a date, so we know for sure it was made by Bruegel in 1563, when the artist was about to move from Antwerp to Brussels.

Bruegel's The Tower of Babel, 1563
the artist's signature and date on a stone block

The commissioner was a wealthy merchant from Antwerp, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, who came to possess more than 15 works by Bruegel, and who also commissioned another of this latter's great masterpieces, The Hunters in the Snow.


The Tower of Babel, like The Hunters in the Snow, was meant to be hung in the private mansion of the merchant and showed off during banquets and ceremonies.



However, right after the premature death of Bruegel in 1569 and that of Jonghelinck soon after in 1570, the painting knew a different destiny: by 1604, it was already mentioned in the collection of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Habsburg, and in 1659 it was a property of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Habsburg. From there, since the Habsburg reigned in today's Austria, the passages are easy: in 1784, when the early collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, soon to be opened, was being assembled, the Tower of Babel was included in it. It has been exhibited there since the late 18th century.



Bruegel's other Towers of Babel

The topic of the Tower of Babel was a pretty popular and relevant one in Bruegel's time. Several painters and engravers made it their subject, and Bruegel himself reproduced it 3 times throughout his life. Of these three Towers, today we only have two.


1. The first one, made during the artist's time in Italy, so around 1551-54, was painted on ivory and given to Giulio Clovio (1498-1570), a miniaturist Bruegel met while in the Peninsula. We lost track of it after that.


2. The second one to be created, known as Great Tower for its dimensions, is the protagonist of this post, today at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It was made in 1563 on a wood panel and is the biggest, most complex and detailed of the three.


3. The third one, sometimes called Little Tower, made shortly after the second (so probably in the same 1563) on a wood panel, today is exhibited at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.



THE SUBJECT: THE TOWER OF BABEL


Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. [....] They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 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. (Genesis 11:1-7)

The main inspiration for Bruegel to paint his Tower of Babel was definitely the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, where the very story of the Tower is narrated.


Long story short, the Tower of Babel in the Bible was thought of as a way to explain the presence of multiple languages among the peoples of God and to show everyone how far arrogance and pride could bring humans (i.e. nowhere).


Babel, a city in the land of Shinar (in Mesopotamia, more or less present-day Iraq) was inhabited by the descendants of Noah, who survived the Great Flood. This people, who had recently built Babel and who spoke a single, unified language, wished to erect a ridiculously tall tower that would reach the sky to prove their worth and show their pride. Ruled by King Nimrod, who commissioned the tower himself, the people of Babel ended up enraging God (who is notoriously prickly in the Old Testament) with their arrogance. God thus intervened and punished the vain humans by creating languages and making it impossible for them to understand each other. Indeed, they could not communicate and therefore could not finish building the imponent tower, which eventually collapsed and remained a symbol of vain pride and futility of human arrogance against God.

King Nimrod, descendant of Noah and ruler of Shinar, is mentioned in the Bible as an excellent hunter and a mighty man, and the description hardly goes further. No evidence that he was the actual commissioner of the Tower is to be found in the Holy Scriptures, while this tradition is of Jewish and Christian origin and emerged in later times, having become widely accepted during Bruegel's lifetime.

The depiction of Babel and its tower was originally inspired by the ancient city of Babylon and its ziggurats, huge temple-like buildings usually dedicated to cults and divination and spread all around Mesopotamia many centuries before the birth of Christ. However, the concept of Babel and its link to sin and pride slowly changed in Christian times, distancing the story from its origins.

➜ People of Modern centuries normally came to connect Babel and its tower to their epoch, their everyday issues and the architecture they were most comfortable with. Here, Bruegel took inspiration from Roman architecture for his Tower and was influenced by the conflict between declining Catholicism and emergent Protestantism.



The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563


DESCRIPTION


The Tower of Babel by Peter Bruegel the Elder is a middle-sized painting (114x155cm / 45x61 in) that presents an imponent, enormous representation of the Biblical tower at its center, with a group of people in the foreground on the left, fields and green landscape all around, a city on the left, and a harbor on the right. Above is a clear sky, where however a few white clouds make their appearance.


The Tower itself is the absolute protagonist: thanks to an oculate use of perspective and an upper positioning of the horizon, the viewer has the impression of being looking at it from a mountain. The Tower is made of stone (the raw stoney core is still visible at the center) with a brick core, as typical of Roman architecture - indeed, Bruegel was most likely influenced by what he saw during his trip to Italy and by the Colosseum in particular.

➜ The Tower looks unfinished and at the same time as threatening to collapse on one side. This might be a sign of the upcoming divine punishment and of the futility of men's efforts.


The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
The stoney core of the Tower is visible here, in the red circles are groups of workers

Hundreds of workers can be spotted carrying out their activities: from carving stones to transporting huge blocks to building and using scaffolds to supervising. Their minuscule size compared to the enormity of the Tower is useful to give the viewer a sense of this latter's dimensions and also highlights the ridiculousness of human beings.


The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
King Nimrod with a group of followers and people kneeling before him

In contrast to this view is the attitude shown by King Nimrod, who is supposed to be the best-dressed man leading the small group in the foreground on the left. Beside him is the architect, showing the commissioner the state of works. In front of them are a few men bowing so hard it seems like they are paying homage to God (also, they are kneeling with both legs, a gesture normally reserved for God indeed).


The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
A lively Flemish city surrounding the tower

On the left side of the Tower is a lively city that looks like a contemporary Flemish urban center, one Bruegel must have seen his whole life. The sizes of the buildings put them well in scale with the Tower.


The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
Massive but still minuscule castle

Even more so can be said for the castle lying on the right side of the Tower: it looks massive but is a little poor thing if compared to the spiralling building.


The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
Active harbour - probably inspired by the city of Antwerp's

The Tower stands right next to a harbour, and this made scholars believe Bruegel might have been inspired by Antwerp itself to paint this. Indeed, Antwerp was a port city where many languages were being spoken and at the time was known for a rather promiscuous and far too sinful behavior (feedback like this can be found all over the centuries for virtually any city around Europe!).


The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
Clouds in a alternatively serene sky

If we look closely, we see arches, doors and windows that differ from one another, the brick core that looks abandoned already and a very dark inside, while clouds are already filling up the sky. All these can be seen as bad omens, signs of the upcoming punishment. The clouds might have also been added to give a sense of height.


The so-called Little Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
The Little Tower of Babel by Bruegel, painted in the same 1563

A quick comparison to Bruegel's Little Tower of Babel

In Bruegel's so-called Little Tower of Babel (little in painting size, the tower itself is actually bigger than the Great), made just a few months after the Great Tower, we clearly recognize a different chapter of the Biblical narration.


This landscape is darker: the sky heralds an upcoming storm, clouds are scarcer but much bigger and rain-filled, vegetation is arid and desolate and no city can be spotted, only a few buildings are scattered here and there.


The tower itself looks as if abandoned already, even if its state of construction is more advanced, almost finished. Very few workers are seen moving around, signs of confusion show in the different architectural styles of windows and arches.


King Nimrod and his group are not present here.


➜ All these details let us think that here God's punishment has already stricken, confusing men and making King Nimrod fall into disgrace.



SUBJECT EXPLAINED: THE MEANING OF THE TOWER OF BABEL IN BRUEGEL'S TIME


Bruegel lived just when Protestantism was affirming itself at the expense of Catholicism in North and Western Europe, and this implied that people who felt closer to the new cults became highly critical of the old ones.


In The Tower of Babel, Bruegel took clear inspiration from Rome and its Colosseum to paint his idea of the building. In his time, the Eternal City was intended as a representation of decline and sin, a place where enraging God was easy due to the corruption and lust of the papacy. In particular, the Colosseum - an ancient Roman structure built by pagans - was linked to evil and persecution (it was built when early Christians were still being chased and killed for their faith) and, despite being recognized as a symbol of human endeavour, had a negative connotation.


➜ The collapsing tower and the arrogance of its commissioner, as well as the futility of the workers' efforts can be seen as a depiction of Catholicism: a system threatening to fail under the weight of brand-new ideas; the Pope as a novel King Nimrod, arrogant and blind to the upcoming perils; the workers as the Catholic believers, working hard to ensure salvation but unaware of the futility of their actions.


However, The Tower of Babel could well be sending a message valid for all peoples and in particular to the citizens of Antwerp, who Bruegel observed every day: be aware of your pride and arrogance, do not chase futile goods, do not engage in sinful activities because everything you do, you will have to respond of in the future. This could be especially valid in a mercantile, business-oriented harbour city like Antwerp.


➜ Considering that The Tower of Babel was destined for the mansion of a wealthy local merchant, this could have been used by him and his guests as a starting point for reflection and discussion, a sort of auto-critic.


 

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WHERE AND HOW TO VISIT





The Peasant Wedding can be seen at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, along with The Hunters in the Snow and The Peasant Dance, the latter probably from the same series.


All three paintings can be found in the Picture Gallery of the Museum, on floor 1, Room X, in the section dedicated to Dutch, Flemish and German painters.


To visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum you will need a ticket: a full price ticket costs 21€, a reduced one 18€ (valid for students), free entry for kids under 19, and there are some other options in case you have specific cards or opt for a combined ticket.



 The Museum is normally closed on Mondays, open Tue-Sun from 10AM to 6PM, and on Thursdays from 10AM to 9PM. From June to August, it is open every day (Mon 10AM - 6PM).





 



References:
  • Masters of Art Series - Pieter Bruegel, Delphi 2016.

  • Emile Michel, Victoria Charles, The Brueghels, Parkstone Press (eBook version)

  • Sandra Forty, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, TAJ Books International 2014.

  • Artwork's page on Arts in Society



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