Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


FOLLOWER OF HENDRICK VAN CLEVE III (Active South Netherlands, Late Sixteenth-Early Seventeenth Century) 

The Tower of Babel

oil on copper

13 ¼ x 17 inches          (33.7 x 43.2 cm.)


Pelsers Collection, Haarlem, who sold it in the 1970s to

H. Savelkoul, Haarlem, until 2006, and thus by inheritance to

E.A.D.P.G. Deveze, until 2010



Martin Philip Guise, “Exceptionelle oplevelser – Antikviteter For Den Moderne Aficionado” in Luxury Aficionados, Hellerup, no. 13, February 13, 2012


The representation of the Tower of Babel in paintings was quite popular in the Southern Netherlands from the second half of the sixteenth century until the early part of the seventeenth.  Other closely related popular subjects of the period that featured fantastic architecture, drama and historic exoticism were the Seven Wonders of the World, The Destruction of Troy, as well as landscapes in general littered with ancient ruins.  These themes carried various connected meanings such as the lost paradise of a united community and warnings against tyranny, pride, discord and megalomania[1]- in essence the idea of vanitas represented architecturally.

The story of the tower of Babel occurs after the Great Flood when only the descendants of Noah are left and can be found in the Book of Genesis 11.1-9:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.  And as they migrated from the east they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  And they said to one another “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.  Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.

The top of this tower was intended as the gateway to heaven.  Divine judgment decreed an end to this overreaching by man, meeting out punishment for such hubris by spreading him throughout the world and mixing tongues.  It is also the biblical explanation for the origin of languages. [2]

The imagery of a huge tower with ramps was popularized in book illumination of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  But it was Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s paintings of the Tower of Babel (the two famous paintings of the scene are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna dated 1563 and the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, datable circa 1564) that set the standard in painting combining the iconography of the earlier sources with an extraordinary central architectural element probably derived from the Colloseum, in Rome. [3]  Copies of Brueghel’s paintings are known as early as 1568 (i.e. Lucan van Valckenborch, Tower of Babel, 1568, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). [4]

Our painting relates to a number of important works that have been attributed to Hendrick van Cleve III, (examples can be found in the Rijksmuseum Kröller Müller, Otterlo; Kunsthalle, Hamburg; and Stockholm University) that depict the tower.  Paintings attributed to Van Cleve and his followers regularly display a tower in the center of the composition built on a platform that is either rectangular or oval shaped.  The platform is connected to the foreground by two expansive bridges with houses around its base.  The tower is round or oval and each level has buttresses and porches.  The upper stories have an unfinished open area (a Brueghelian element probably also based on the Colosseum) that reveals the inner construction where masons and other craftsmen toil.  Trees, boulders, and buildings have all been incorporated into the body of the tower (again, additions first painted by Brueghel).  The foreground generally features a building-site with chalk ovens, huts for stonemasons, transportation of material and a village for the workers.  The background is a panoramic fantasy landscape with a port and town. [5]

While our painting conforms to the general type of the Van Cleve grouping the level of fantastic decoration employed throughout as well as the inclusion of all the traditional iconography of the story combined with the choice of copper as the support far exceeds the standard rendering of the subject. [6]  In the corner of the left foreground of our painting King Nimrod, who according to tradition ordered the tower’s erection, [7] is seated on a throne before a genuflecting architect who reports on the building’s progress.  Extravagantly marking the King’s grandeur as well as his ultimate fate, are the remnants of a classical building that top his throne, and the broken column that lies at its base.  A monkey, the traditional symbol for evil, folly and heresy, sits on the throne’s steps mimicking the King’s majestic gesturing.  A lovely detail is the pair of elephants in the right mid-ground used to enhance the exoticism of the setting.  Clearly the painter never saw elephants in the flesh but sourced them from prints.  The town that has sprung up at the base includes not only a cathedral but also a palace and a town hall.  A large golden statue protrudes from the tower’s side.  The central main entrance’s positioning and elaborate decoration crowned with the statue of a golden warrior is probably unique. [8]  The background’s town and port are painted a mystical blue, yet the scene sits under darkening skies in which a storm cloud has appeared.  God’s wrath is about to be felt and the full folly of the enterprise revealed.  In concluding remarks on this work Stefaan Grieten noted “one could even say that it was painted with exclamation marks instead of brushes”.  Either painted on commission or for the red-hot art market that was centered in Antwerp at the time, the painting’s shimmering surface as well as its underlying message continue to resonate.

We are extremely grateful to Stefaan Grieten of the Architecture Archives of Provincie Antwerpen for his invaluable assistance in the writing of this entry.



[1] Written communication from Stefaan Grieten dated November 22, 2010.

[2] Bruce M. Metzger & Roland E. Murphy,  The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, p. 14.

[3] Wolfgang Stechow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1968, p. 82.  Brueghel was probably familiar with images of the Colosseum from a series of prints done by his main publisher Hieronymous Cock.

[4] Ibid., p. 86.

[5] Stefaan Grieten, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Wolfgang Stechow, op. cit., p. 82.  Nimrod is not mentioned in the Book of Genesis but was suggested by the Roman historian Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, chapter 9, published in AD 93-4.

[8] Ibid.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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