I nearly missed Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, because our planning for three days in Vienna had revolved around cake shops and concerts. Luckily I saw a street poster about the twelve Bruegel paintings which are on permanent display at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, including the Tower of Babel.
It is an odd sensation to see the real version of an art work which is so familiar from reproductions. This one represents a central story from the Judeo-Christian tradition on a theme which has been central to my studies in the social psychology of language: Is linguistic diversity a good thing?
The King James version of the story:
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
I take the interpretation that humans are being warned of assuming God-like powers, rather than focusing on linguistic diversity as a curse. It could perhaps also be a warning to English speakers who assume that the whole world can and should speak their language. Global languages come and go over time.
Bruegel’s painting shows the hubris of humanity, with its representation of a building project similar to the might of a Roman structure, and the grand lord in front of his postrated rag doll-like workers.
No matter what the meaning it is a gorgeous picture, and I was left with an overwhelming impression of decadent beauty.