The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel is one of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s most famous paintings. However, the motif has created some confusion at times, because there are two versions.

There are a number of important differences between these two compositions.

The Tower of Babel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna is signed and dated 1563. The Museum Boijimans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam also owns a Tower of Babel, which is attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder but is not dated. We are now juxtaposing these two paintings, not digitally but in reality.

For the duration of the Bruegel exhibition, the Rotterdam Tower joins its ‘twin’ in Vienna. A quick comparison reveals that both panels depict the same subject in a similar setting. However, there are a number of important differences between these two compositions.

The size of the tower

The panel in Vienna is almost four times bigger than that of the Tower in Rotterdam - but if we were able to enter the compositions, we would realize that the tower in Rotterdam is in fact 250 % bigger than the one in Vienna. We can gauge this from the size of the figures.

The viewpoint

We can see the top of the tower in Vienna; the horizon in the painting in Rotterdam is much lower, so that the tower is facing us.

The figures

Note the group of figures in the foreground on the far left of the painting in Vienna. It may be a depiction of King Nimrod and his retinue. They occupy an important place in the composition and play a role in the narrative. In the painting in Rotterdam, the entire group has been omitted.

1

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Tower of Babel
After 1563? // Oak panel, 59.9 × 74.6 cm // Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, inv. no. 2443

2

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Tower of Babel
1563 // Signed and dated on a block in the foreground: BRVEGEL.FE. / M.CCCCC.LXIII. // Oak panel, 114.3 × 155.1 cm // Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Picture Gallery, inv. no. 1026

The construction

The tower in Vienna is built around a large rock; the freestanding tower in Rotterdam was built by man alone.

Bruegel illustrates this by offering us a view into their respective interiors. He also carefully selects the colours to illustrate this aspect: for the tower in Vienna he chose a pale palette. Built of bricks, the tower in Rotterdam comprises strong, dark hues and appears much more threatening.

You might be wondering: which of these two towers came first?

The dates added by the artist are not very helpful.

Only the Vienna Tower is signed and dated. The Tower in Rotterdam may once have been signed and dated: careful analyses have revealed that the painting in Rotterdam may have been cropped. Maybe this is how the signature was lost.

Today, most scholars believe that the smaller Tower of Babel was painted after the one in Vienna, which is dated 1563.

X-rays support this: they show that the Tower in Rotterdam initially resembled the one in Vienna. However, Bruegel decided to alter it while he was working on the painting.

A number of other points also support the idea that the painting in Rotterdam was executed after the one now in Vienna. Did the tower in Vienna serve as the model for the one in Rotterdam? We have not yet been able to prove this. What do you think?

Brigitte Humpelstetter, copyist at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, about Bruegel
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