The story of the Tower of Babel is told in the Book of Genesis 11:1-9, offering a parabolic, aetiological explanation as to why so many diverse languages are spoken around the world – and why, as a result, speakers of different languages struggle to communicate with each other. Originally, the world was monolingual. As the people migrate eastward, they come to the land of Shinar (southern Mesopotamia), where they resolve to build a city and tower that will reach up to the heavens. Yahweh, however, foils their plans by scattering them across the earth and confounding their language so that they can no longer understand each other and thus cannot continue building the tower. In doing so, a polyglottal humanity is born. It is a powerful origin story that has resonated with writers and artists throughout the ages. Here, we look at six examples of works of art and literature inspired by the Tower of Babel.
Within the Roman Catholic faith, books of prayer for certain canonical times of day are known as books of hours. Manuscript examples from the Middle Ages are often lavishly illuminated, and few more so than The Bedford Hours, which boasts more than 1,200 historiated roundels.
The Bedford Hours was originally created to mark the wedding of Anne of Burgundy and John, Duke of Bedford (which, of course, is where the manuscript’s name is derived) on May 13th, 1423. On Christmas Eve 1430, however, Anne of Burgundy gifted the precious manuscript to the nine-year-old King Henry VI, her nephew.
Within a series of miniatures depicting scenes from the Book of Genesis, on Folio 17v of the Bedford Hours, the concurrent construction and divine demolition of the Tower of Babel is depicted in a full-page miniature. Laborers continue working on the construction of the tower, and Nimrod and his retinue come to survey their work (a scene taken from Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, perhaps, rather than the Book of Genesis, in which Nimrod is not mentioned). All the while, however, divine forces are working against them. Thus, the image underlines the warning against greed and megalomania, as stated in the Book of Genesis.
2. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)
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Published in 1939, Finnegans Wake is a monumental work within literary modernism. Deeply experimental and, according to some at least, near impenetrable in its linguistic idiosyncrasies, it is also a self-conscious inheritor of the legacy of the fall of the Tower of Babel: namely, the confusion of tongues. “The word ‘Babel’ is,” according to Jesse Schotter, “referred to at least twenty-one times in the Wake.” James’ preoccupation with the infamous tower is signaled from the very beginning of the novel, as “Finnegan’s fall” echoes “the fall of the Tower of Babel,” or, as Joyce refers to it, the “baubletop” (see Further Reading, Schotter, 89; Joyce, 5).
The confusion of tongues was a concern shared by many others besides Joyce in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was, after all, during this time that so-called “universal languages” were being invented, including Basic English, Novial, Volapuk, Istotype, and, most famously perhaps, Esperanto.
Like these “universal languages,” Joyce incorporates elements of tens of languages into Finnegans Wake – and, in earlier drafts of the novel, he even incorporated some Esperanto. If, however, these “universal languages” were attempts to overcome the confusion of tongues that resulted from the fall of the Tower of Babel, Joyce resists such attempts in his novel, reveling instead in the rich, polyglot cacophony that resulted from the fall of the “turrace of Babbel” (see Further Reading, Joyce, 199).
Joyce was skeptical of attempts to recover or return to a supposedly “pure” language that predated not only the fall of the Tower of Babel but the fall of man, too. In Finnegans Wake, as Schotter observes: “Joyce provides in his own version of a universal language not the solution to the problem of Babel but Babel itself” (see Further Reading, Schotter, 100).
3. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The (Great) Tower of Babel and The (Little) Tower of Babel
That the Tower of Babel exercises a fascination over the cultural imagination is especially true of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Such was his obsession with the Tower of Babel that he painted it not once, not twice, but three times. The (Great) Tower of Babel and The (Little) Tower of Babel, however, are the only two pieces to survive, as the earliest piece of the three (a miniature painted on ivory) is lost. It has been suggested that Bruegel’s fascination was linked to the Reformation and the resultant rift between the Catholic Church (in which services were in Latin) and Protestantism.
Though The (Little) Tower of Babel is roughly half the size of The (Great) Tower of Babel, at first glance, the two paintings seem compositionally very similar, both depicting the construction of the Tower of Babel, the structure that dominates both paintings.
In addition, the two towers are architecturally very similar, evoking (according to John Malam) the Roman Colosseum. Just as the Colosseum had once seemed to depict the might of the Roman Empire, it now stands as a reminder of the ultimate transience of even once-powerful empires, and so the likeness Bruegel draws between the Colosseum and the Tower of Babel is apt. Both towers are also tilted and therefore unstable: in both paintings, the foundations are shown to be weak and the tower itself crumbling in places.
However, where The (Great) Tower of Babel is set on the edge of a cityscape, The (Little) Tower of Babel is surrounded on three sides by open countryside. Moreover, in The (Great) Tower of Babel, Nimrod and his entourage make an appearance (just as they do in Folio 17v of The Bedford Hours), while The (Little) Tower of Babel is eerily devoid of human figures.
4. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel” (1941)
“La Biblioteca de Babel” (The Library of Babel) is a 1941 short story by the acclaimed Argentinian writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges. The story is set, as Borges’ narrator explains, in a universe that consists of an enormous library “composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries” (see Further Reading, Borges, 78).
Though the vast majority of the books in each room are compositionally formless and incoherent, among the shelves are also all the coherent books ever written. These books, however, are few and far between, and “for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences” (see Further Reading, Borges, 80). As for the books that are seemingly incoherent, the narrator suggests that some may only seem incoherent because a language in which they would become legible has yet to be devised.
As things stand, however, this means that the books are useless, much to the despair of the librarians in this universe. While some librarians are driven to destroy incoherent books (though the library is so vast that “any reduction […] is infinitesimal”), one “blasphemous sect” suggests “that all men should juggle letters and symbols until,” by chance, they re-produce the much longed for coherent, canonical books – thus exacerbating the original problem (see Further Reading, Borges, 83). Other librarians, however, seek a book that might provide an index or compendium for the library’s collection, devised by a quasi-messianic librarian (the Man of the Book) who has gone through the library archives.
The story can be read in light of Borges’ 1939 essay “La Biblioteca Total” (The Total Library). Here, Borges makes an explicit reference to Borel’s infinite monkey theorem, to which he only obliquely alludes in “The Library of Babel.”
5. Lucas van Valckenborch, La Tour de Babel, 1594
Lucas van Valckenborch the Elder was a contemporary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and, like Bruegel, he painted the Tower of Babel more than once. Before his 1594 painting, he also produced a painting of the Tower of Babel in 1568 and then went on to produce another in 1595. All three seem to be influenced by Bruegel’s works, though this is especially true of the 1568 and 1594 paintings. Also, like Bruegel, van Valckenborch drew inspiration from the Roman Colosseum in constructing his own Tower of Babel.
It is perhaps little wonder, however, that van Valckenborch was drawn to painting the Tower of Babel just as Bruegel was. As a contemporary of Bruegel, he was responding to many of the same historical events, including the fallout of the Reformation. Against this backdrop of religious strife within Western Christianity, the Catholic Church was also embarking on a series of major construction projects, including St. Peter’s Basilica.
If van Valckenborch sought to draw a parallel between the Catholic Church’s construction projects and the Tower of Babel in his paintings, the parallel would imply an indictment of the Catholic Church. And, as van Valckenborch and his brother and fellow artist Marten fled Antwerp (just as the figures in the foreground of his 1594 painting appear to be fleeing Babylon before the fire spreads) in the wake of the Beeldenstorm of 1566 before eventually taking refuge in Germany, it is thought that he was in all likelihood a Protestant.
6. A.S. Byatt, Babel Tower (1996)
Published in 1996, A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower is her third novel focusing on the life of Frederica Potter. When Nigel, Frederica’s affluent and sadistic husband, attacks her with an axe, she flees their marital home with their young son, Leo, and moves to London. She finds employment as a teacher in an art school and mixes with poets, painters, and Jude Mason, a novelist whose latest work is being put on trial. When Nigel files for divorce, the two legal battles play out in tandem.
At the heart of Babel Tower is the question of language and the ways in which it can both facilitate and frustrate communication. During her divorce proceedings, Frederica’s literary tastes are weaponized against her, as her husband’s lawyers seek to convince the jury that a reading woman cannot a good mother make. Nor does the jury believe that Nigel attacked her with an axe. In this way, Byatt flags up the wiliness of the language of the law court.
Meanwhile, Jude’s novel, Babbletower, is on trial for obscenity. The suffering of the heroine of Babbletower, Lady Roseace, mirrors that of Frederica. Yet where the Jury seem inclined to view Frederica’s trauma as fiction, they view Jude’s fiction as pornography.
As the above examples attest, the story of the Tower of Babel has had a lasting hold on our collective cultural imagination. On a broader scale, it speaks to our sense of global fragmentation, and, within our private lives and personal relationships, it reminds us of the treachery of language, which is at once our primary means of communication and yet fraught with the latent danger of miscommunication. As such, it seems more than likely that the Tower of Babel will maintain its firm grip on the cultural imagination for many years to come.
Borges, Jorge Luis, “The Library of Babel,” trans. by James E. Irby, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (London: Penguin, 2000), pp. 78-86.
Byatt, A.S., Babel Tower (London: Vintage, 1997).
Joyce, James, Finnegans Wake (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Malam, John, Pieter Bruegel (Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 1999).
Schotter, Jesse, “Verbivocovisuals: James Joyce and the Problem of Babel,” James Joyce Quarterly, 48, 1 (2010), 89-109.