The Tower of Babel has been a popular subject in art for a long time. Described in Genesis 11:1-9, the Old Testament tale of Babel describes how, in the early days of the world, all mankind spoke the same language. Journeying from the east, they came to the great plains of Babylonia, and settled. They wished to build a tower so high that its top could reach heaven: however God was angry with their arrogance, and as punishment for this excessive human pride God divided the people by giving them different languages and scattering them over the face of the earth. The name Babel is associated with the Hebrew root “bbl”, “to confound.” The name ‘Babil’ (Bab-il or Bab-ilu) means ‘Gate of God’. Jewish oral tradition suggests that one-third of the unfinished tower sank into the earth, another third was consumed by fire, and only one third remained standing. Passing the place of the tower makes you forget all you know. This story serves as the end of the ‘prehistory’ of humankind (beginning with Adam and Eve) while introducing the era of patriarchs beginning with Abraham. The sin of Adam isolated him from God and his fellow humans, while the sin at Babel led to the alienation of the entire human society from God and men from one another.
Hendrick van Cleve was the son and pupil of Willem van Cleve I. After his apprenticeship he travelled to Italy, where he painted views of Rome and Tivoli. He became a master in the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke in 1551-2. The present painting by Hendrick van Cleve belongs to the same European tradition of paintings as those by Hans Holbein the Younger, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Abel Grimmer. Van Cleve was one of several painters and teams of painters who depicted the Tower of Babel in the 16th century, forming a loose movement or school. A similar painting by the artist is in the Rijksmuseum Kröller Müller, Otterlo, inv. no. 628 (fig. x). In both paintings in the foreground, the founder of the city of Babylon, Nimrod, may be present, supervising the construction.