Babel details


The Tower of Babel (c. 1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Seeing as how I have a fetish for Towers of Babel I ought to have examined this one sooner, the copy at the Google Art Project being one which allows you to explore the surface of the picture in greater detail than the artist himself would have seen unless he was using a magnifying glass. I still find the Art Project interface awkward so the grabs here were taken from a massive jpeg at Wikipedia: 30,000 pixels across, or 243 MB, scaling up to around 1.84 GB in Photoshop which means it’ll make older machines grind in complaint.


The detail is astonishing even by Bruegel’s standards. I’d never realised before how much care is given to the individual actions of every single worker on the tower, however small. Bruegel’s close observation of the working habits of the people around him is here reflected in the myriad figures, all of whom are doing something purposeful. At this resolution you’re able to see that the workers have taken their wives and children up the tower with them—there’s the familiar line of washing hung out to dry—while various beasts of burden haul building materials up the spiral roadway. You could spend a long time exploring the details of the tower before even looking at the background where tiny boats are sailing the sea and the rivers, and more fortunate animals have been left to graze in fields.

Wikipedia has several more of these enormous images. It’s a shame there aren’t many more of Bruegel’s works available at this size, his other crowded paintings deserve equal scrutiny.


One of the builders on his lunch break.


A jug on a window sill.

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Athanasius Kircher’s Tower of Babel


Here’s a picture whose myriad details I’ve wanted to scrutinise for many years. Lieven Cruyl was the draughtsman and Coenraet Decker the etcher while the picture itself appears as an illustration in Athanasius Kircher’s (deep breath) Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Primo Priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, Secundo Turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio, confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur. The book was published in 1679 and, among other speculations, features Kircher’s eye-popping illustration (below) showing how tall the Tower of Babel would have to be in order to reach the Moon. I used part of the big illustration in a cover design for metal band Melechesh in 2006.


The copies here are from a scanned volume at the University of Heidelberg where the pages have suffered slightly from bookworm. But the resolution is high enough to explore a picture crawling with tiny details, from the bristling scaffolding at the top of the structure, and the houses (for the workers?) built on the ramps lower down, to a procession of camels and other beasts being led towards the main entrance. In the background there are smaller towers and a few pyramids (Kircher explored the latter elsewhere in the book), and also a harbour with beast-headed sailing ships. The full-size picture may be explored here.


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Brüsel by Schuiten & Peeters


The Palace of Justice, Brussels.

Brüsel (1992) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters follows La route d’Armilia as the next major work concerning the Cités Obscures. As with La Tour, this is a longer story where it isn’t immediately apparent that we’re in the Obscure World at all, although Brüsel is clearly an alternate version of our Brussels. The unfinished Palace of the Three Powers in the city centre is modelled on the Palace of Justice in Brussels, and both buildings share architects by the name of Joseph Poelaert.


The Palace of the Three Powers, Brüsel.

Brüsel is a “small man” tale of Constant Abeels, a would-be shopkeeper preparing to launch a business selling a new and modern innovation: plastic flowers. Abeels suffers from a persistent cough, and it’s a combination of his health problems and business problems—the water for the shop is disconnected—that causes him to become enmeshed in schemings to radically transform the city, and the resistance to those plans. The tale is also a satire on the overly-optimistic march of progress of the late 19th and early 20th century, with all the problems of trying to impose sudden architectural change on a change-averse community. Inhabitants of Brussels have a long history of sudden architectural change, the huge Palace of Justice being constructed only after residents of the area had been forcibly evicted. In the 1950s and 60s, the flattening of old quarters in order to build New York-style office blocks was so destructive that the French coined the term “Brusselisation” to describe a brutal remodelling of a city against the wishes of its citizens.

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