Migdal Bavel in Art


The story of the Tower of Bavel and the dispersal of humanity described in Bereshit 11:1-9 is a favorite amongst artists, depicted in hundreds of images over the centuries.1 The three images shown here, the rendition of Shalom of Safed (1963),2 the oil painting of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1563)3 and the fresco of Giusto di Giovonni de' Menabuoi (1376-78),4 each depict little more than the tower, but look nothing alike. Each artist envisions the tower itself, the participants in the building and the setting of the story in unique ways, suggesting different readings of the original narrative.

Contrasting Images

Shalom of Safed

Shalom of Safed's painting is the simplest of the images, bare and static. The drab brick tower stands tall and erect in the center, looming over the city of red roofed houses. At the tower's top stands a lone pony-tailed figure, wielding a sword. Directly below the tower, on the bottom of the composition, a group of almost identical looking people are aligned in alternating rows of brown and red.

Pieter Bruegel

In Bruegel's painting, too, the tower takes center stage, but it is a colossal, spiraling mound of yellows and reds, massive in both height and breadth.5 Green meadows and a hint of a city lie behind the tower to the left, while the sea opens to the right. In the left foreground of the image a group of men gather. Some are at work, while others stand armed behind a cloaked figure, presumably a king, supervisor of the building project.

Giusto de' Menabuoi

In contrast to the other artists, Giusto de' Menabuoi places the tower, a white stepped structure, on the side of his painting. In front of it stands an oversized figure, garbed in brown and bearing a torch. Around him, builders chisel at bricks while others work on the tower itself. The higher one goes up the tower, the more the figures appear like children. Two have fallen off while others seem to be fighting or injured. In the right background, brown mountains rise into the orange sky where one can make out an angel watching (or, perhaps, hampering) the people's progress.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

The Nature of the Tower

While Shalom of Safed depicts an austere, charcoal-colored building resembling a watch tower or light house, Bruegel paints an elaborate, winding coliseum, replete with arches and windows. Giusto de' Menabuoi presents a third possibility, a pure white, stepped pyramid. Which is closer to the text? From Bereshit all we know is that the tower was made of bricks and its head was meant to reach the heavens. The artists' choices, though, might relate to an ambiguity in the verse's statement of the intended function of the structure. Was it meant primarily to be a guard-tower, "lest we spread out" or a magnificent architectural feat to "make for us a name"? Alternatively, the story's setting in Babylonia allows for the possibility that the tower was essentially a ziggurat, a common feature of Babylonian temples, a "stairway" to God.6

Was There a Leader?

Both Bruegel and Giusto de' Menabuoi include a figure in their paintings who is supervising the construction of the tower. Bruegel depicts this leader as a king, garbing him in royal clothing and a crown, while de' Menabuoi marks him by painting him disproportionately large and more richly dressed than the other figures. While no parallel character is found in Shalom of Safed's rendering, he, too, paints an individual who stands apart from the rest, marked by his sword and location atop the tower. Is there any indication of such a leader in the Biblical narrative? From the nine verses of the story itself the answer would be negative, but Bruegel and de' Menabuoi seem to be drawing from the midrashic tradition that sets Nimrod (mentioned in the previous chapter as reigning over Bavel in the land of Shinar) as the initiator of the project.7 Shalom of Safed's figure might be Nimrod as well, or alternatively, he might be alluding to an additional tradition that suggests that the people set an idol atop the tower to wage war against Hashem.8

The Participants

Shalom of Safed places the inhabitants of the city together in one large group, under the tower, as if to signify that all the people were in agreement and of one mind about their actions. The workers on de' Menabuoi's tower, in contrast, seem to be fighting and hurting one another, with two even falling to their deaths.9 Which depiction has more support in the story? The answer depends on some unknowns in the Biblical text. What does the phrase "וַיְהִי כָל הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים" mean? Is it simply a statement about shared language or does it connote some sort of unity and harmony as well?10 Similarly, when Hashem said, "וְנָבְלָה שָׁם שְׂפָתָם", what exactly happened? Did the plethora of languages lead naturally to a quiet dispersal, or was this preceded by disagreements, misunderstandings and fighting?11

What Was Wrong?

What was the sin of the generation of the tower that resulted in their dispersal? Of the three artists, only Shalom of Safed addresses the question directly, suggesting that this was a rebellion against God, an attempt to wage war against Him.12 De' Menabuoi's depiction of quarrelling workers might point in the opposite direction, highlighting a problem in interpersonal behavior.13 From Bruegel's painting, though, there does not seem to be any sin at all. The text of Bereshit similarly makes no explicit mention of any wrongdoing, leading commentators to read into the people's actions everything from innocence14 to idolatry. See Deconstructing Migdal Bavel for a full discussion of this issue.

The Setting

Giusto de' Menabuoi sets his tower in a valley, on a backdrop of mountains, while Bruegel's is built by the sea. In contrast to both, Shalom of Safed positions his in the middle of the city. Is there any significance to the choices?

  • De' Menabuoi is likely merely depicting the simple reading of the verses which state that the people lived in the valley of Shinar. By including the surrounding mountains in the image, though, he highlights the irony of the people's goal – they aim for the heavens, but might not even manage to reach as high as the nearby mountains.
  • Shalom of Safed might be working off other verses which refer consistently to the twosome of the "city and tower." What is the connection between the two? Did Hashem have a problem with the tower specifically or perhaps with the city as well?15
  • Bruegel's sea setting has less basis in the text. Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman suggest that the decision of several artists to include water in their renditions is a response to the juxtaposition of our story to the flood narrative.16 Josephus, in fact, suggests that one of the main reasons the people built the tower was their fear of another deluge.

Mission Accomplished?

While Shalom of Safed depicts the tower as a fait accompli, Bruegel and de' Menabuoi paint their towers while still in the midst of construction. According to Sefer Bereshit, did the people manage to finish the tower before they were dispersed or not? The verses are ambiguous. On the one hand, verse 5 reads "וַיֵּרֶד ה' לִרְאֹת אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת הַמִּגְדָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם", suggesting, perhaps, that both the city and the tower were already completed.17 In contrast, in the following verse, Hashem says "וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת" as if they had just started building.18 Later, we are told that due to the dispersal, work on the city was halted, but there is no mention of the tower. This allows for the third possibility that one was finished but not the other.19