Sunday, June 2, 2019

Genesis 11.1-9: Talk and Tools

You might even have been able to hear them singing as they were building:
The more we get together, together, together
The more we get together the happier we'll be
But not everyone was happier with everybody getting together to build a tower to heaven. So language was confused (Genesis 11:1-9). No one could understand each other any more and building slowed. Slowed. And ultimately stopped. The tower was left to the ravages of time as surely as Ozymandias' vast and trunkless legs. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Perhaps the tower builders didn't know the story of Adam and Eve, whose lives were changed when they sought to be like God. Perhaps they knew but believed that their story would be different. 

Perhaps that's just human nature - to want to leave works and legacies and reminders that you walked the earth. That you were here. Pieter Bruegel saw the tendency in 16th-century Antwerp (Belgium). He paired the commercial development and urban sprawl of Antwerp with the Biblical story of the tower of Babel. 

The artist was commissioned to create several documentary paintings of the construction of a canal in Antwerp, so he put his learnings about construction to work in this large composition (approximately 45" x 61"). On the tower you'll see workers pulling boards up by ropes, horses pulling sleds piled with bags of something, workshops for creating building materials and tools, stonecarvers picking away at rock, ladders leaning against walls and boards spanning chasms.

The tower is based at least in part on the Colosseum in Rome, which at the time Bruegel painted was an abandoned and weed-covered ruin. Bruegel was making the point that what the Romans considered a masterpiece of engineering and architecture was now nothing to brag about. Perhaps the same fate awaited Antwerp's great plans for building and expansion. 
Pieter Bruegel. Tower of Babel. 1563. Vienna: Kunsthistoriches Museum. 
Google Art Project allows a really close zoom onto the details of this painting. Click here.
At the lower left, Nimrod has come to check the progress of his tower. Some of the stone cutters have stopped their work, bowing down to the king. One of the cutters has abandoned his tools on top of the stone on which he was working. But he has left the handle of the hammer and several of the spikes facing toward us. All we have to do is walk into the picture, pick up our tools, and help build this remarkable tower. 

Should we? Should we have walked in and picked up those tools if we were in the Biblical story? Should we have done that if we lived in Bruegel's 16th-century Antwerp? What about now? Should we pick up those tools and go to work with people we may not understand? Human language is never unconfused. The miracle of Pentecost isn't one of speech. It's one of hearing: each one heard their own language (Acts 2:6). The Holy Spirit facilitated hearing. The problem of communication remains.

Bruegel created a second (larger!) version of this subject. Look at Art&Faith Matters on Facebook to see what differences you can see.

For additional thoughts on Pentecost, click herehere, here, or here.

Cultural aside: Is it just me...or does the Bruegel painting look more than a little like Minas Tirith in the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies? The source of that structure is supposedly Mont St. Michel, but it feels at least a little bit Bruegel to me. 

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