According to the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9), all people spoke the same language until Noah’s descendants decided to build a city and a tower that would reach heaven. God reacted with anger to such aspirations, wary that people would overreach themselves. To stop them, he made them speak different languages, which caused such confusion that they abandoned their endeavour and dispersed across the world. The story serves as an explanation of the existence of different languages and as a warning against human pride and overambition.
Modern scholars have identified the Tower of Babel with the remains of the Etemenanki Tower in the ancient city of Babylon in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), one of several brick-built temple towers known as ‘ziggurats’. Their construction was motivated by the ancient belief that the Gods lived at the top and so priests could go upwards in order to sacrifice directly to them. The Etemenanki Tower dates from the period of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, which is recorded in the Old Testament. Babylon in turn is described as a city of sin, luxury, and arrogance, emblematic of unacceptable human ambitions.
Many artists, writers, and film-makers have been fascinated by the moral implications of the Tower story. Dalí has imagined it as a spiralling, flesh-coloured, phallic-like tower piercing into the clouds. It vaguely recalls Gustave Doré’s depiction of the Tower in The Confusion of Tongues (1865–68), which is derived from the spiral minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq. In Dalí’s picture, the top of the tower is not visible as it seems to continue beyond the picture surface. As it falls into ruins, its upper part features supporting crutches, a recurrent motif in Dalí’s art.
The lithograph belongs to a series of 105 illustrations that were commissioned in 1963–64 by Dalí’s friend and patron, Giuseppe Albaretto, for a five-volume edition of the Bible entitled Biblia Sacra (Milan, Rizzoli 1967–69). The commission ties in with Dalí’s interest in Catholicism, which he increasingly embraced after World War II. The specific subject of Babel also resonated with his earlier writings. Around the time of his mother’s sudden death, he worked as a seventeen-year-old on what he later called a ‘great philosophical work’ entitled The Tower of Babel. According to his autobiography, The Secret Life of Dalí, this text amounted to a 500-word prologue, which reflected on death and was related to his own unstoppable ambitions: ‘The bases of my Tower of Babel began with the exposition of the phenomenon of death which was to be found, according to my view, at the inception of every imaginative construction […]. That which at the base of the tower was “comprehensible life” for everyone, was for me only death and chaos. On the other hand, everything on the summit of the tower, which was confusion and chaos for everyone else, was more me, the anti-Faust, the supreme thaumaturge, only “logos” and resurrection. My life was a constant and furious affirmation of my growing and imperialistic personality, each hour was a new victory of the ego over death.’
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Turris Babel, (Genesis 11:1–9) from the first volume of Biblia Sacra (Milan: Rizzoli, 1967–69), 5 vols.
Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech (Figueres, Catalonia, 1904–89).
Medium and Support
Colour offset lithograph.
48 x 35 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
St John’s College, Durham University.
© Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2022.
Eduard Fornés, Dalí and his Books (Barcelona: Editorial Mediterrània, 1987), pp. 34 and 56;
Salvador Dalí, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, trans. Haakon M. Chevalier (New York: Dover Publications, 2013), p. 153;
Eduard Fornés, Dalí-Illustrator (Paris: Les Heures Claires, 2016).