Pieter the Elder Bruegel's startling vision of the Biblical tale in which humankind constructs a tower as a symbol of their shared universal language was painted in 1563 shortly before his departure for Brussels where he found commercial success. The Tower of Babel was most likely painted on commission for the merchant Nicholas Jongelinck whose inventory it appeared in by 1566. A magnificently ambitious composition, Brueghel's imagined reproduction of the Biblical scene is an exploratory thesis on personal and public unity and morality, reflecting the political, religious and economical concerns of his day. Using an elaborate rendering of the tale of the multi-lingual tower, Brueghel stages a powerful criticism of the contemporary Church of Rome, the occupying Spanish forces of his homeland and Antwerp's nefarious business community. The tower of Babel in the painting literally dwarves the tiny city beneath, condemning the stock exchange, trading port, and cathedral to the dark shadow of the building. Witnessing the rapid regeneration of his home town of Antwerp after the city began accepting religious refugees with the promise of trade freedom, the political liberation aspired to was finally abandoned at the altar of ever-more flamboyant building projects.
Bruegel's scathing criticism of his times takes the form of a half-built Roman structure, curiously similar to the Colosseum in Rome. For Christians of his day, the ancient worlds of Rome and Babylon symbolized the fleeting vanity of once-great regimes. Upon closer inspection Brueghel's reproduction of the tower is littered with architectural instabilities, making the arches holding up the colossal building destined for collapse. With a remarkable eye for allegory, satire, and pastiche, Brueghel's masterwork serves as a warning for all generations of the vanity and excesses of rapid economic growth.
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