The art historical literature on Pieter Bruegel’s 'Tower of Babel' paintings offers a microcosm of the more general methodological and interpretative interests in Bruegel studies today. Art History has a long-standing and ubiquitous interest in the ‘allegorical’ nature of Bruegel’s work. The Babel paintings are no exception. In this article, I consider both the paintings and the art historical literature, as well as introducing Walter Benjamin’s writings on allegory into Bruegel studies in order to make three interventions into the field.
Firstly, through a close reading of the paintings, the art historical literature on the paintings (with its emphasis on history, nature, sovereignty utopia and ruins) and a philosophical interpretation of the Tower of Babel narrative, I offer a new interpretation of the paintings to art history. Second, I intervene into the methodological debates on allegory by putting forward a Benjaminian conception of the dialectical aspects of Bruegel’s paintings. Third, I discuss how this knowledge puts pressure on our comprehension of Benjamin’s writings on the dialectical nature of allegory, its relationship to ruins, and their reliance on nature, history, philosophy and the question of sovereignty.