'I love it because the painting reminds me of the absurd nobility of Man'

The Tower of Babel, 1563, 24in by 29in, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (about 1525–69), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Bridgeman Images.

Honeysuckle Weeks says:
‘Why? A dream-like, impossible building, which nonetheless champions human endeavour. The tower is built so that all nations can live peacefully together under one roof and speak the same tongue. Yet world peace seems difficult to achieve. The tower itself is not built in concentric circles, but in a spiral shape, hence none of the ceilings are straight…Some of the columns on the bottom rung are already mouldering. The structure looks fantastical and utterly unstable. I love it because the painting reminds me of the absurd nobility of Man… Attempting Utopia and achieving a termite mound.’

Actress Honeysuckle Weeks stars with Ian McKellen in Radio 3’s Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw in February.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘At least half a dozen of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s pictures must rank among the most famous in the world. His work covers a range of media and subjects high and low, paintings, drawings and prints: Old and New Testament scenes, mythologies, allegories, satires, landscapes, summer and winter scenes, tavern scenes. During his life, he earned the nickname ‘Pier den Drol’ because of his eye for the absurd. Posthumously, he was called ‘peasant’ Bruegel.

It is only since about 1900 that his art has recovered the fame it enjoyed when he lived, his robustly non-academic and critical attitude as applicable as ever. Circumstances change —we do not. Bruegel painted two versions of the Tower of Babel; this is the first. It shows the huge building at an earlier stage of construction and is less foreboding than the later picture. In the foreground, King Nimrod inspects the progress. Every ambitious northern artist in the 16th century completed his education with a visit to Italy. Bruegel was there between 1553 and 1554 and saw the Colosseum, the inspiration for his tower.

Apparently, he made an even earlier painting of the subject in miniature on ivory for a friend in Rome. The ivory is lost, but the evidence stands, giving credence to the story that he learned miniaturisation as part of his Flemish apprenticeship.This picture is characteristically full of minute details. The tower in Genesis was intended to reach Heaven, but God stopped the vain glorious project by introducing a confusion of languages.So the city where it stood was called Babel, or Babylon, meaning ‘confusion’.’

This article was first published in Country Life, January 19, 2011