The journey of The Tower of Babel: just 1 more week on display in Rotterdam

The masterpiece of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is about to make a journey.

Pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Tower of Babel’ is still on display in Rotterdam until the 3rd of September. The painting will then travel to Vienna, where it will be part of an exhibition in Vienna from October 2 till January 13: here it will find its place next to the other Tower of Babel…

With the showpiece from Rotterdam, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is able to show the two paintings of the Tower of Babel side by side for the first time since the 17th century. The Austrian museum, which owns the largest collection of Bruegel paintings in the world, commemorates the 450-year anniversary of the Flemish master’s death with his first-ever solo-exhibition. ‘The Tower of Babel’ from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen forms a crucial part of this project. After the painting leaves the museum next week, it will be back in Rotterdam from January 2019. ‘The Tower of Babel’ will then remain on display for several more months before the renovation of the museum, among other masterpieces such as ‘The Wayfarer’ by Hieronymus Bosch.

 

Curator Friso Lammertse emphasizes the significance of this international loan: “The exhibition in Vienna is an unprecedented opportunity to bring Bruegel’s work together. This is the first time in 400 years that the two towers of Babel can be studied side by side. It is a dream come true for all Bruegel enthusiasts.

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Pieter Bruegel's Towers of Babel side by side; on the left, the painting of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen.

Three Towers of Babel

The paintings show the Babylonians building their tower, which is meant to reach into the heavens, before God punished their arrogance with the ‘Babylonian speech confusion’. The biblical story of the tower of Babel symbolizes the universal struggle between mankind’s ambitions and her vanity. Bruegel painted the tower three times: the piece in the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is the last one. The painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is a larger piece, dated 1563, and shows an earlier stage of the tower’s construction. The third painting of the tower of Babel is a miniature, which Bruegel painted on a small piece of ivory, probably during his trip to Rome where he was inspired by the Roman Colosseum. Unfortunately the whereabouts of this small masterpiece are unknown.

A journey of centuries

‘The Tower of Babel’ is drifting around for over 300 years, before it finds its way into Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Around 1600, both towers are in possession of Rudolf II of Prague, along with some other Bruegel paintings. Come 1620, the painting presumably is back in Antwerp for a while. In the 18th century, it is in possession of the royal family of Spain. After that, it only shows up over 3 centuries later, in 1935 in the Parisian art trade world. Art collector D.G. van Beuningen buys the painting in Paris a year later, for the capital amount of 120.000 guldens. Together with the larger part of Van Beuningen’s collection, ‘The Tower of Babel’ becomes part of the municipal collection in 1958.

The exhibition in Vienna

Pieter Bruegel the Elder revolutionized landscape- and genre painting, and to this day his work continues to fascinate people worldwide. Only about forty paintings and around sixty drawings of the grandmaster remain today; out of these, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen owns seven. The Bruegel exhibition in Vienna this fall will be the largest overview of his oeuvre ever: over ninety pieces from all over the world will be brought together. In this way, for the first time in hundreds of years, visitors get the chance to admire the two towers of Babel right next to each other.

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