The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1–9) is intended to explain the existence of different languages. After the Great Flood, all of humanity spoke the same language. Noah’s great-grandson, Nimrod, decided to build a tower in Babel that would reach heaven. When God saw it, he was angry and made people speak different languages so they could no longer understand one another. The building stopped.
Nimrod appears in the middle distance of Leandro Bassano’s painting. Bricklayers work at either end of the large square tower on wooden scaffolding. A labourer carts bricks in a wheelbarrow while another mixes mortar with a long stick.
A stonemason chips away at a block with his hammer and chisel. His ceramic jug and half-drunk glass of red wine stand on the ground beside him and a little boy sits holding his chisels. This painting gives us an impression of what a sixteenth-century Italian building site might have looked like.
The story of the Tower of Babel told in Genesis (11: 1–9) is intended to explain the existence of different languages. After the Great Flood, all of humanity spoke the same language. Noah’s great-grandson, Nimrod, decided to build a tower that would reach to heaven: ‘And they said to one another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar’ (Genesis 11:3–5). When God saw their city and tower, he was angry; he made all the people speak different languages so they could no longer understand each other, and he scattered them around the world.
In Leandro Bassano’s painting the giant, richly dressed figure of Nimrod appears in the middle distance instructing his builders. A large square tower is being constructed with men working on wooden scaffolding at either end. A labourer wearing an apron carts bricks in a wheelbarrow, while another man sorts them in a large wooden trough. Water is mixed into mortar with a long stick in the foreground. The mortar is then carried to the site on boards resting on the builders‘ shoulders, then up a ladder to the bricklayers on the scaffold.
A stonemason chips away at a large granite block with his hammer and chisel. His ceramic jug and half-drunk glass of red wine stand on the ground next to him and a little boy sits behind holding his chisels. Part of the charm of this painting is that it gives us an impression of what a sixteenth-century Italian building site might have looked like.
This subject must have appealed to the Bassano family because of their interest in painting ordinary people and everyday objects. Here Leandro has included a similar jug, spaniel and copper pan to those seen in The Departure of Abraham. The pose of the little boy holding the chisels resembles that of the shepherd boy blowing on the stick in The Adoration of the Shepherds. It was common for the Bassano family to reuse elements or figures in their paintings.
Much of the composition was outlined with a brush and dark paint, which is now visible in the masonry and around the figures on top of the building. It is likely that this brush drawing was copied from an earlier painting or cartoon of the same subject, probably an almost identical painting by Leandro’s brother, Francesco Bassano, which is now in the Prague Castle.
The painting carries an inscription, now covered, at the lower left on the shaded side of the block of stone: LEANDER A PONTE B. The rest of the inscription is illegible but it may say ’EQs' (a shortening of ‘knight’ in Latin) in reference to the knighthood given to Leandro in 1596. This inscription is not original, but is probably early and seems to identify the painter correctly, whose confirmed work corresponds stylistically with the painting.
Download an 800px wide, 72dpi copy of this image.
License and download a high resolution image for reproductions up to A3 size from the National Gallery Picture Library.
This image is licensed for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons agreement.
Examples of non-commercial use are:
The image file is 800 pixels on the longest side.
As a charity, we depend upon the generosity of individuals to ensure the collection continues to engage and inspire. Help keep us free by making a donation today.
You must agree to the Creative Commons terms and conditions to download this image.