Dictionary of Art and Artists


that Changed the World


  Lascaux Caves Manesse illuminated Massys Callot Friedrich Picasso
  Tutankhamen's tomb Lorenzetti Grunewald Rembrandt Constable Matisse
  Europa and Minotaur Karlstein Castle Baldung Claude Lorrain Delacroix Marc
  Banquet Tomb Limbourg brothers Altdorfer Velazquez Turner Kandinsky
  Pompeii Van Eyck Cranach Vermeer Ingres Monet
  Birth of Christianity Della Francesca Holbein Rigaud Manet Chirico
  Hagia Sophia Uccello Titian Watteau Burne-Jones Modigliani
  Book of Kells Mantegna Bruegel Canaletto Seurat Chagall
  St Benedict Botticelli Vicentino Boucher Van Gogh Kahlo
  Bayeux Tapestry Anonymous Arcimboldo Fragonard Toulouse-Lautrec Dali
  Donizo manuscript Durer El Greco Gainsborough Munch Ernst
  Liber Scivias Bosch Theodore de Bry John Trumbull Cezanne Hopper
  Carmina Burana Da Vinci Caravaggio David Gauguin Bacon
  Falcon Book Michelangelo Rubens Gros Degas Warhol
  Giotto Raphael Brouwer Goya Klimt  

From Lascaux to Warhol

Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truth,
passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius,
but never abandoned.

William Butler Yeats




Let Us Build a Tower to the Heavens

The world as a construction site



King Nimrod, Chamas's grandson, Noah's son, said he wanted to revenge himself on God if God should again afflict the earth by visiting a second deluge upon it. Therefore he said he would build a tower so high that the flood-waters would not reach its top.

Josephus Ravius, Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 4, first century AD


The Empire Stare Building, New York


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 the writings

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 Pieter Bruegel the Elder transplanted the Tower of Babel to Antwerp, where he joined the St Luke's Artisans' Guild in 1551. That Pieter Bruegel 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.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Tower of Babel


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