Tower of Babel. Joos de Momper, Antwerp c.1600. Oil on canvas. 175cm x 249cm. Musee Royaux des Beaux Art, Brussels. (Wikipedia Commons)
Whilst at the Medieval Pottery Research Group conference in Brussels at the beginning of June some of us found time to visit the Musee Royaux des Beaux Arts. I particularly wanted to see the Brueghels. Near to those was this huge Tower of Babel by Joos de Momper, painted around 1600. De Momper lived in Antwerp and was a friend of Jan Brueghel and his son, sometimes collaborating with them but generally specialising in landscape rather than genre painting.
The story of the Tower of Babel appears in Genesis 11: 1-9 and explains how the multiplicity of human languages emerged. (I have quoted the English King James Bible. De Momper would probably have read it in Flemish or French.)
1. And the whole earth was of one language.
2. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3. And they said to one another, Go to, let us make Brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime (sic) for morter.
4. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.
5. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language, and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them which they imagined to do.
7. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
The painting shows the Tower of Babel mid-way through construction with Nimrod and his entourage inspecting the works in the foreground. Babel was a popular subject and many painters included construction details – lots of scaffolding – but what is arresting about De Momper’s depiction is the sheer density and range of activity. He has taken verse three as his theme, ‘Go to, let us make Brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime (sic) for morter.’ In some languages the mortar is given as bitumen but De Momper seems to have gone for lime as a logical interpretation.
The Babel Brickworks, Tower of Babel (detail). Joos de Momper, Antwerp c.1600. Oil on canvas. 175cm x 249cm. Musee Royaux des Beaux Art, Brussels.
In the foreground on the right a group of limekilns are distinguished by their square shapes and the barrow runs to their rims. One glows from the top and smoke billows around them.
Behind and above them a vast spill of terracotta forms a significant splash of warm colour across the middle of the canvas, the brightest of a series of diagonal lines across the painting, retreating in scale and leading the eye from the masons in the bottom right all the way to the top of the tower. This a huge disorderly stack of fresh bright brick set out in front of a building and a group of large round brick kilns, each with a surrounding timber shelter. Flames belch from the nearest kiln as carters load up and foremen inspect and organise.
In effect this is a convincing picture of brick production in the large 15th century with a convincing representation of a functioning brick kiln. It is interesting that De Momper shows a round updraught kiln with a wide top rather than a clamp which one might assume was more usual. Archaeological excavations of early kilns invariably focus on the kiln itself and pay scant attention to the surroundings. When post-holes are identified they are rarely interpreted as parts of the kiln or are too unclear to be read at all. Here De Momper clearly indicates a lean-to roof resting on the kiln and supported by posts. Such structures are known from 19th century examples in Britain, often walled in as at Barham Brothers Brickworks in Bridgwater, Somerset or indeed the Bulmer Brick and Tile works in Essex as well as from smaller potteries.
The painter uses the kilns for another purpose of course. The people of Babel are to be punished and these are reminders that they are transgressing and that the fires of hell are ever present. Do not overreach yourselves, the painting warns. The structure, colour and message is remarkably similar to De Loutherbourg’s much later painting Coalbrookdale at Night with its sensual and sinister depiction of the Bedlam Furnaces in Shropshire.