In June 2003, I lay my hands on a wonderful book about the Tower of Babel. In this work, the author, Helmut Minkowski, gathered the results of a whole life of research on the iconography of the Tower of Babel: more than 600 images dated between 3000 B.C. and the end of the 20th century.[1] I studied each illustration carefully. One of them was graphically very similar to a Tarot of Marseille card. One only. It is on page 139 — a drawing by Sandro Botticelli (Some similarities between Botticelli’s works and cards from the Tarot of Marseille have already been presented on this site. See episode 6, episode 7, episode 8, episode 9, and episode 10).

Sandro Botticelli, The Tower of Babel (detail of the illustration of Canto 12 of Dante’s Purgatory).

Among the 94 illustrations made by Sandro Botticelli for Dante’s Divine Comedy (see Episode 10), one represents the scene from Canto 12, which essentially deals with the sin of pride and the punishment of the proud. On the vellum leaf, the detail in which we are interested occupies a rather small surface — a collapsing tower with two men falling while others are lying on the ground. A witness to the scene, in bewilderment, raises his arms to the sky.


Nicolas Conver, House of God, 1760.

There are many similarities between this drawing and the Tarot of Marseille’s House of God card: 1) The towers share the same general, square design, each with sloping bases and rectangular blocks. 2) The upper parts of both structures, detached from the towers, are tumbling into a void. 3) The character at the forefront on the card is in the same position as the man falling to the ground in Botticelli’s drawing — arms outstretched, face to the ground, legs bent and disjointed. The drawing illustrates three verses from Dante’s poem:

I saw Nimrod at the foot of his great labor,
as if bewildered; and there looking on were the people
who were proud with him in Shinar.[2]

This sentence alludes to the biblical episode of the Tower of Babel, Nimrod being traditionally considered to be its builder and Shinar being mentioned in the Bible as its place of erection.[3] Given that Botticelli’s illustration shows the Tower of Babel, with the Tarot of Marseille’s House of God resembling it, it might be tempting to conclude that the 16th trump of the Tarot of Marseille is yet another representation of this myth. However, an important difference between the two images opens another lead: the lightning that strikes the top of the tower in the card. There is no such thing in Botticelli’s drawing, which is normal, as the Bible does not in any way indicate that the tower had been struck by anything.

The story, narrated in Chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis, provides a mythological explanation for the multiplicity of languages in the world. According to this text, in the beginning, all men spoke the same language, and they planned to build a tower reaching to the heavens. Yahve, seeing the tower, worried that this achievement might be just the beginning, as language allowed men to do anything they wished. To avoid this, he confused their language, so that they could not understand each other anymore, then he scattered them over the face of the earth. At no point in this story is the tower itself struck.

Since antiquity, however, a tale spread, according to which the great tower had been knocked down by powerful winds aroused by Yahve.[4] Furthermore, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – c. 50 CE), in his treatise The Confusion of Tongues, posed the idea that these men got too close to the sun while building the tower and caught fire, as if struck by lightning.[5]

The idea of a divine punishment by fire is also present in Canto 12 of Dante’s Purgatory. Indeed, the poet lists a series of characters known for having dared to defy divine power.[6]  Dante first alludes to Lucifer — that he sees him “falling as lightning from heaven.” Immediately afterward, he names Briareus, describing him as “pierced by the celestial bolt,” then the Giants, with their scattered limbs, of which Ovidius reminds us that they were vanquished by “Jupiter’s bolts hurled on Phlegraean fields.”[7]

Sandro Botticelli, The Vanquished Giants (detail of the illustration of Canto 12 of Dante’s Purgatory).

In his commentary on Dante’s Purgatory, Canto 2, Cristoforo Landino – whom we already mentioned in Episode 10 – says nothing about Babel, but refers to what he wrote about a passage from Inferno, in which Dante already had cited Nimrod.[8] There, in Canto 31, Nimrod is part of a group of Giants kept as prisoners on the edge of the well that leads to the center of the earth. Seeing them from afar, Dante thinks they are high towers. Then, he identifies them as the Giants vanquished by Jupiter:

… for, as on its round wall, Montereggione crowns itself with towers, so here the horrible giants, whom Jove still threatens from heaven when he thunders, betowered with half their bodies the bank that encompasses the pit.[9]

Commenting on this passage, Landino seems to assimilate the mythic Giants to the biblical builders when he evokes their punishment:

They were, according to the fables, the giant sons of Earth who wanted to steal the heavens from Jupiter. And for that purpose, they took three mountains in Thessaly — Mount Olympus, Mount Pelion, and Mount Ossa — and put one on top of the other to climb up to heaven. Jupiter sent bolts of lightning and knocked over the mountain tower, as well as the Giants, whom he sent to Hell. […] They were tall and  wanted to go higher than they deserved […], and so they put mountain over mountain, a great deployment of force, but God dispersed and scattered them.[10]

Landino here writes that God dispersed the Giants to highlight the parallel between the pagan fable and the biblical story of Babel, the dispersion of men being Yahve’s punishment imposed on the builders of the tower of Babel. Ficino also alludes in his writings to the story of the rebel Giants. In one of his letters, addressed to the young, but mighty, Cardinal Riario, he associates human pride with the image of a high building struck by divine lightning:

Do not in any way trust in the high position and power of men. The highest positions are very often shaken by wind and lightning, and mighty edifices fall most heavily and are only with much difficulty reconstructed.[11]

Then Ficino advises the young prelate, in order not to fall like the Giants, never to give up God because he who turns away from God loses Him as a defender, but finds him again as an avenger — that whoever disregards his heavenly Father discovers in Him a fiery judge.

On the card, the lightning falling from above strikes the tower’s summit, causing only the upper part of the building to buckle. This part, round-shaped and with crenellations, has the appearance of a crown. In this way, it visually expresses the idea, stated by Ficino, that God severely punishes terrestrial powers that challenge Him.

However, the title of the card seems to contradict the image. Why should a representation of divine punishment be titled The House of God?

To be continued in part two.

[1] Helmut Minkowski, Vermutungen über den Turm zu Babel, Freren, Luca Verlag, 1991.

[2] Dante, Purgatory XII, 33-35 (translated by Charles S. Singleton).

[3] Genesis, 11 1-9.

[4] See Oracles sibyllins, III, 97-107, in La Bible. Écrits intertestamentaires, ed. André Dupont-Sommer and Marc Philonenko, Paris, Gallimard, 1987/1999, p. 1056-1057 ; Flavius Josephe, Les Antiquités Judaïques, I, 117-118, Paris, Cerf, 1992, p. 35-36.

[5] Philo of Alexandria, De confusione linguarum, 157, Paris, Cerf, 1963, p. 128-129.

[6] Dante, Purgatory XII, 25-33.

[7] Ovidius, Metamorphoses, X, 150-151

[8] Dante, Inferno XXXI, 10-40.

[9] Idem, Inferno XXXI, 42-45.

[10] Landino, Comento, Inferno,XXXI [28-45] 32-43 (ed. Paolo Procaccioli, Roma, Salerno, 2001, p. 972).

[11] The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Vol. 4, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 1988, p. 39.

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