“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 to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then 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. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
[Old Testament, Genesis, Chapter 11: verses 1-9]
The biblical story of the construction of the Tower of Babel, the creation of a building so excessively high that it would reach the heavens is a story of human hubris and how God punishes those who ambitiously attempt to contest Him. He confused the people’s language so they could no longer understand each other. The name Babel derives from the Hebrew term balal, meaning ‘mixed up’.
This biblical passage was an extremely popular subject in the art of The Netherlands between 1550 und 1650, probably because Dutch port cities were highly cosmopolitan places during these times, with merchants from all over the world walking their streets, speaking a multitude of different languages. The genre also appealed to many patrons, because it combined landscape, architecture and figures in exotic attire, as well as a multitude of interesting details. Pieter Brueghel’s famous interpretations of the subject, which are today in the collections of the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, became leading examples of the theme that inspired a large number of followers, among them Hendrik Van Cleve III.
In the present picture the artist places the Tower of Babel in a vast landscape bordering the ocean. The massive building dominates the centre of the composition. Its immense height can be guessed by the upper stories reaching the clouds. An ornate gate marks the entrance to the tower. A road, flanked by arches, winds itself around the core of the building to the top, where cranes can be seen in the mist, signaling that construction is still under way. In the foreground of the picture a group of people pays tribute to the building’s architect King Nimrod, who is wearing a white turban, adorned by a feather. He stands in front of an obelisk flanked by courtiers and guards, holding a sceptre.
Babylon, the city in the background, stretches along a large bay that vaguely resembles the Gulf of Naples. Large, representative buildings and fortifications, adorned with towers and cupolas shimmer in the hazy sunlight that illuminates the blue bay from the upper left of the composition. A tiny windmill on the seashore to the right of the tower seems to be the artist’s tribute to his Dutch homeland.
The present painting is an attractive, highly detailed rendering of the subject, which invites the viewer’s eye to wander. Comparable compositions by the artist can be found in the collections of Hamburger Kunsthalle (Germany) and The Kroeller Muller Museum (Otterlo, The Netherlands).
Attributed to Hendrik van Cleve III
The Building of the Tower of Babel
Oil on oak panel
40,3 x 55,2 cm
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Vermächtnis Carl Gottfried Sohst, Hamburg 1898, Inv. Nr. HK-417
Hendrik van Cleve III
The Building of the Tower of Babel
Oil on Copper
41.3 x 47,5 cm
Kroller Muller museum Otterlo, KM100.870