Babylon is Fallen!
A Clash of Powers
Commentary by Nancy Ross
John Martin’s etching of the Fall of Babylon shows an imagined ancient cityscape threatened by every kind of violence imaginable. The foreground shows Belshazzar, a Babylonian ruler who desecrated the stolen vessels of the Temple at Jerusalem by drinking from them during a feast (Daniel 5:1–2), being stabbed in the back (Daniel 5:30). His wife and female relations plead for mercy with the conspirators. Battle scenes fill the middleground as the city is invaded by the Persian army led by Cyrus the Great, who will win this battle and rule the city.
The city represents the pinnacle of human achievement, with an extensive network of walls, columns, statues, rooftop gardens, and bridges. A great tower (echoing that of Babel in Genesis 11:1–9: a monument to heavenly aspiration and creaturely hubris), rises to an impossible height and looms over the city as it appears to be destroyed by the elements. God’s wrath at Belshazzar’s sins is manifest in the dangerous skies, lightning bolts, and widespread chaos of the scene.
The traditions of Romantic art celebrated nature’s tremendous power, in reaction to an Enlightenment focus on human reason and rationality. In the words of art historian Kathryn Calley Galitz, the Romantic movement’s ideas of nature ‘offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought’ (Galitz 2004). In this etching, the power of nature against the ordered city is an embodiment of divine will. The Babylon of ancient history is falling into ruin, foreshadowing and (in Martin’s hands) mimicking the second fall of ‘Babylon’ at the end of time in Revelation 18. The cult statue of Babylon’s patron deity Marduk—visible with his dragon in the very centre of this etching—is unable to challenge the power of the one true God.
In Revelation, the angel from heaven declares that ‘the kings of the earth have committed fornication with [Babylon], and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury’ (Revelation 18:3 NRSV). The grand building projects and organized public spaces of Martin’s imagined reconstruction of ancient Babylon show why the city’s appeal might have been so strong. He conjures up its luxuriant power even as he shows its terrible demise.
Kathryn Calley Galitz. 2004. ‘Romanticism’, in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, available at www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/roma/hd_roma.htm [accessed 25 October 2021]
Commentary by Nancy Ross
Endre Rozsda’s abstract Surrealist painting of the Tower of Babel offers not so much a clear depiction as a suggestion of ideas and forms. The overall impression is one of chaos and colour.
Dark, ladder-like, horizontal forms erupt from the bottom of the painting. Sets of wavy lines counter the strong horizontals, suggesting human forms, but never defining them clearly. Vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows draw the viewer’s attention toward the upper left of the painting, while cooler colours prevail on the right. Zooming in on the painting does not produce further clarity, but makes it appear even more abstract. Confusion abounds. It is an apt metaphor for the Tower of Babel, and (by extension) for the fall of the great imperial cities that are its descendants.
Like other Surrealists, Rozsda was interested in exploring the unconscious mind through his painting. Instead of representing Babel/Babylon as a symbol of human achievement or as a symbol of human folly, Rozsda allowed his painting of the tower to emerge from a place of complexity and mixed feelings. He described his work as a ‘research space’ where he explored the themes of time, perception, colour, and architectural forms (Rosenberg 1998). The painting represents the tower as a kind of paradox: it seems that people are climbing scaffolding to create the tower and, at the same time, the piecemeal nature of the painting makes it seem as though the tower is crumbling and falling. Construction and deconstruction are happening simultaneously. The painting depicts a kind of history of overweening human ambition.
The abstract imagery of fragmentation and distorted time feels applicable to the destruction of the city of Babylon, the home of the mythic Tower of Babel. Roszda painted this in Paris after fleeing the Hungarian Revolution before it was crushed by the Soviets. The chaos and disorder of this painting is a haunting memorial to the difficulty of challenging fragile empires, echoing in the biting words of the angel in Revelation 18:6 (NRSV), ‘Render to her as [Babylon] herself has rendered’.
Rosenberg, David. 1998. ‘Entretiens avec Endre Rozsda’, in Endre Rozsda: Retrospective, ed. by Magyar Balint (Budapest: Mucsarnok), pp. 75–89
Destroyed from Within
Commentary by Nancy Ross
This tapestry was made in the late fourteenth century in France and is part of a series, known as the Angers Apocalypse tapestries, depicting the book of Revelation. This one shows John’s vision of the fall of Babylon (Revelation 18:1–3).
An angel from heaven emerges from the clouds to make his announcement that Babylon has fallen (Revelation 18:2; also 14:8). Medieval viewers would have understood the long ribbon-like banderole that the angel holds to signify that the angel is speaking to John. John stands at left, slightly separated from the scene, looking on at the judgement which unfolds as though watching a stage drama.
The broken buildings of the fallen city are in a heap in the centre of the tapestry. It has not been destroyed by a warring army, but by corruption from within (18:3, 5, 7, 23b–24). So the buildings of the city crumble in on themselves. Babylon implodes because the greed of city rulers produced poor governance and lack of care for its physical structures; because those with power preferred to live in luxury, rather than care for their city.
The chaotic arrangement of the broken buildings contrasts with the regular pattern of the wheat that forms the background of this image. Not only is the wheat orderly, but it is ripe and ready to harvest, recalling the Harvest of the Wheat in Revelation 14:14–16. That too is an episode of accountability and triumph in the larger cosmic battle that plays out through the narrative of Revelation.
The Babylon of history (sharing its name in Hebrew with the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11) was both a city and an empire. The Neo-Babylonians, at the height of their power, conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and forced most of the kingdom of Judah’s population into exile. The texts of the Hebrew Bible associate this event with devastation and intense sorrow. The visionary Babylon of Revelation 18 is thus not only a place haunted by different forms of evil; it recalls a specific and great harm done to the people of God.
Today, the tapestry invites us to consider that corruption and decline of individuals and communities are not always initiated by external forces. Greed corrupts us internally, leaving little care or concern for our communities. Such greed begets deception and violence, which in turn destroy faith and trust.
John Martin :
The Fall of Babylon, 1831 , Mezzotint with etching
Endre Rozsda :
The Tower of Babel (La Tour de Babel), 1958 , Oil on canvas
Nicolas Bataille :
The Second Angel Announces the Fall of Babylon, no.50 from The Apocalypse of Angers, 1373–87 , Tapestry
A Curious Kind of Hope
Comparative commentary by Nancy Ross
The book of Revelation is a dramatic expression of hope in exile. Christian tradition holds that John was exiled to the island of Patmos and, while asleep, received a tour of heaven and things to come. The narrative that plays out for John is a great cosmic battle between God and the heavenly hosts on one side and the forces of evil on the other. The sequence is full of symbols and strange imagery. A new heaven and a new earth ensues.
One of the principal images of evil used in this text is that of Babylon. Babylon was for the Jews what Patmos became for John: it was a place of exile. In the Hebrew Bible, the Neo-Babylonian army destroyed the city of Jerusalem and brought the people back to the city of Babylon as captives.
The devastation of this historical event was the source of great mourning for the Jews. But the subsequent fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Great and the Persian army opened an opportunity for their return to Jerusalem, to reclaim their land, and to rebuild. The fall of Babylon signalled a turning point in this ancient story.
In Revelation 18, an angel shows John the fall of Babylon, but this is not the historical event from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Instead, this Babylon represents a new collection of evils and combines themes of the apocalyptic destruction of cities from multiple other Hebrew Bible texts. Revelation 18 describes this city as being haunted by demons (v.3), as having grown rich from luxury (v.3), as being a place of pride and excess (v.7) where prophets and saints were murdered (v.24). As a result, the angel tells John that Babylon will experience numerous plagues in a single day, bringing pestilence, grief, famine, and fire as a sign of God’s judgment (v.8). Just as the fall of Babylon was a turning point in the ancient story, so is the fall of Babylon a turning point in this apocalyptic story.
Elaine Pagels has commented on the constancy with which Christians throughout their history have compared their enemies to figures of evil in Revelation (Pagels 2012). Different biblical interpreters from different historical periods have identified Babylon as a symbol for a multitude of evils in their own times. Whatever the specifics of their particular associations, the drama and pathos of the fall of Babylon have provided commentators, artists, and readers, with an appealing way to criticize their enemies.
Embedded in this exhibition’s three visual representations are different kinds of challenge, which typically centre on the notion that human achievements—represented in the image of the city—are ephemeral follies that will eventually be destroyed by human or divine action (or both).
The unnamed medieval artist of the Angers Apocalypse tapestry imagines the Fall of Babylon in Revelation 18 as the crumbling and decay of a corrupt city—though this seems to be more by human neglect than any divine action, supernatural earthquake, or demonic attack. It is a city hollowed out from within.
Focussing on the book of Daniel, on which Revelation 18 also draws, John Martin’s The Fall of Babylon inserts more detail and drama into the destruction of the ancient city. The viewer is invited to contemplate the vastness of the building programmes in the metropolis and the destruction wrought on it by the Persians. Here, the natural elements and the invading army are part of God’s plan to restore the Jewish people to Jerusalem and remember God’s covenant with their forebears. Martin revels in both its grandeur and its devastation.
Endre Rozsda’s painting of the Tower of Babel is markedly different from the other two works shown here. Its abstract style suggests human and architectural forms without ever fully committing to them. The tone of this painting is one of chaos—perhaps born out of Rozsda’s experiences of fleeing political violence—and the Tower of Babel is used as a vehicle for commenting on greed, power, and humanity’s sowing of its own demise.
These representations of the Fall of Babylon remind viewers that humanity’s achievements are not permanent and do not grow in a linear fashion, but are ephemeral, subject to the limitations of human greed, powerless in the face of nature and the divine, and deceptive in appearance.
Yet in both the Old Testament and the New Testament accounts, the Fall of Babylon serves as a turning point, and offers a curious kind of hope. Whether by natural consequence or divine action, those who celebrate greed, luxury, and deception will fail.
Within the larger story of Revelation, this failure paves the way for the descent of the Heavenly City (Revelation 21:9–27), where justice and good governance will prevail.
Elaine Pagels. 2012. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (New York: Viking), pp. 1–36