Teeming with master builders,
carpenters, stonemasons, mortar mixers and brick-masons, the enormous
construction site depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in The Tower of
Babel recalls something like an anthill. It is clear that no expense
was spared here. A tower was to be built, which would reach the Heavens.
However, it was not intended merely to withstand the floodwaters of a
second deluge. If one believes what is written in the Old Testament and in
of Josephus Flavius, a Romanised Jewish historian, or
even what is supposed to have been in The Sibylline Books, the
tower primarily symbolised man's defiance against divine omnipotence.
Evidently the act of building achieved its purpose: "The Lord waxed wroth
and became enraged when for Hoffart the tower was engaged", quipped the
Strasbourg Humanist Sebastian Brant in his Narrenschiff (1494),
published in English as The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde in 1509.
Needless to say, the Lord was not amused by these excesses. He descended
from the Heavens to punish the construction workers who, until then, had
spoken to each other in the same language.
After the visitation they were left with a confused
babble of tongues. Since people could no longer communicate with each
other, the tower was left unfinished. A gigantic monument to hubris, it
crumbled into decay. Did such a tower actually stand in Babylon, then one
of the world's oldest cities, long the political and cultural hub of the
ancient Near East? Archaeologists are not in agreement on this point.
Nevertheless, in 1899, the remains of a sanctuary were uncovered on the
site of ancient Babylon. In the middle of the temple precinct traces were
found of a square tower consecrated to the god Marduk. Its sides were 91.5
metres long and it was estimated to have been some 90 metres high. Was
this the legendary Tower of Babel?
The Netherlandish painter
transplanted the Tower of Babel to Antwerp, where he joined the St Luke's
Artisans' Guild in 1551. That
made the Tower of Babel the subject of a painting shows the painter felt
he, too, was living in a time of social, political and religious unrest.
He obviously thought a great deal about what the biblical tower symbolised:
ambition, pride and the transience of human existence. His painting may,
therefore, be a sign that some sane voices were calling for moderation and
reflection in an exhilarating age of global exploration and of expanding
trade links. On the other hand, The Tower of Babel might
just as easily be taken to represent a manifesto against the denial of
human rights, oppression and tyranny, a vision invoking the imminent end
of the Spanish domination of the Netherlands. The painting might also be
interpreted as moral support for the Reformation. Its leading exponents
never ceased to censure the Papacy and the princes loyal to Rome for
"resurrecting" the godless city of Babylon. The Reformers were of the
opinion that it was high time for more linguistic diversity since, as they
saw it, the Church of Rome no longer had anything worth saying.