Little Tower of Babel

The “Little” Tower of Babel PIETER BRUEGEL (1525-1569)

See for the source of the photograph of the above painting.

Part of what I like about Flemish Rennaisance painting is that often the artists see the biblical scene in terms of their own every-day life.  There are advantages to imagining a scene as it might have occurred at the time described; there are other advantages to translating that ancient story into contemporary terms.   In this painting, the tower is built next to a Dutch harbor in classic design.  You see that it has risen above the clouds, thus graphically demonstrating in ancient understanding, the reason that God should fear humankind’s intrusion into God’s doman, presenting a threat to “the gods’ power as described in Genesis 11:1-9.   “Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”  v. 7.  See  for an excellent article on Bruegel’s work.

There is a similar Sumerian story written about 2000 B.C.  In that, a god becomes jealous of mankind building a ziggurat (or high rock structure) in honor of another god, so imposes on humankind many different languages.   In both accounts, the gods feel threatened by human power, and so multiple languages are imposed to confound and restrict it.

Sister Wendy Beckett is a highly acclaimed art critic and commentator, early introduced to the public in the Public Broadcasting series, Sister Wendy’s Odyssey. In her Book Of Meditations she offers the following meditation upon the above painting:

Beyond Babel

What silence principally armors us against is Babel: the endless foolish chatter, words used to confound thought, words misused to ward off a friendship or attachments, words as occupation. The Biblical Babel was a metaphor for the loss of human ability to communicate as a consequence of the rise of different languages; but the foreigness of other tongues is a smoke screen. To express what one means, and to hear what another means: this is a rare thing. Babel is profoundly destructive of our energies, as Bruegel so splendidly shows. This monstrous tower is consuming all who labor on or near it. We have an absolute need for quiet for the heart’s wordless resting on God.

We will, on occasion, revisit Sister Wendy’s Book of Meditations and also her book, Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour. She has also written other acclaimed books on western art, including Contemporary Women Artists, Art And The Sacred, Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, Sister Wendy’s Story Of Painting, sister wendy’s book of the saints, and a child’s book of prayer in art. These are published by DK Publishing, Inc, 905Madison Ave, New York, NY 100016. It also has a web page at I highly recommend her books.

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