The Tower of Babel and Ozymandias

7:00 AM

Peter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- "Ozymandias," Percy Bysshe Shelley


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, famous for his paintings of the Little Ice Age, peasants, and vices and virtues, presents a vividly colored but somberly themed religious work.  Something seems immediately troubling about it.  "Ozymandias," Shelley's 1818 poem, is written in iambic pentameter to mimic the heart's normal palpitations. The poem's imagery of starkness where there once was life, leaving the reader to listen only to his own heartbeat, creates feelings of desolation and even fear.

The biblical Tower of Babel and the poem "Ozymandias" share fleeting, glorious moments and lifeless lows. Between the humanity of Genesis attempting to build a tower reaching to heaven and King Ozymandias trying to immortalize himself in stone, it is hard to say which is a loftier goal.  Nonetheless, the Old Testament God - or forces unknown - punish them for their ambition, and their works and hopes fall to disrepair.  The contrast of light on either side of the canvas catches the eye, and the succession of arches from the top level cascades into ruin, taking the viewer's gaze with it.  Especially interesting is the juxtaposition of the sunlit, glorious left-hand side of the tower and the shadowy decay of the lower front.  One other detail I find interesting is the strange angle of the tower, not quite perpendicular to the ground, as if evoking a sinking ship.  No real building would ever be constructed like that.  It also appears that some of the upper floors were built before lower ones could be finished. And ever in the background of the painting are the vast sprawls of flatlands of Shelley's poem, all that will remain when humanity disappears for good.

It would seem that the works stand testament to the transience and futility of earthly pursuits, but I do not think this is the case.  Instead, I believe that they are cautions against hubris.  We have ideas worth sharing and bringing to life, but these works suggest having a certain humility and respect for forces beyond our control.

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