Sacred Vessels: An Exploration of Scottish Church Ship Models

By Meredith Greiling

Ship models have a long tradition in religious rites and imagery.

For millennia ships were important as the only method of transportation, trade and communication between distant lands and many livelihoods depended on the sea. This vital role meant that ships themselves became invested with spirituality and symbolism.

Indeed, the symbol of the ship is inextricably linked with the church itself; the nave of the church comes from the Latin word ‘navis,’ meaning ship, and probably relates to the shape and vaulting of a church roof which can resemble an upturned ship’s hull.

The imagery of a ship traveling across the sea, sometimes peaceful sometimes stormy, is also used as an allegory for life itself. Several times in the Bible, from Noah’s ark to the miracle of Jesus calming the Sea of Galilee to Psalm 107, we are told stories of ships and boats weathering storms with God’s help. St Ambrose in his writings compares the church to a ship and the cross to a ship’s mast.

In Europe the Christian tradition of ship models in churches is recorded as early as the fifteenth century, but may be much earlier. A votive model became a common sight in churches in ports and fishing communities around the Mediterranean, Baltic and North Seas.

Sailors and those travelling by sea would commission models for churches as a votive offering, in fulfillment of a vow, and a token of gratitude for safe deliverance from peril at sea.

In the Catholic tradition these models were built to be included in rituals and ceremonies to honour a particular saint or festival, a practice which continues today in parts of South West England, France and Spain where ship models are carried through the streets in processions.

However the inclusion of ship models in post-Reformation churches was also common in Protestant countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands, northern Germany and indeed Scotland. Ship models in churches served as a reminder to congregations of their dependence on the sea for their livelihoods. Later, ship models would also be given to churches in memory of sailors lost at sea whether through storm or as wartime losses.

Suspended from the church ceiling by chains ship models are often symbolic of a type of ship and do not necessarily represent actual vessels, although frequently folklore surrounds them and stories spring up in local communities attributing names of real ships to models which bear no relation to their namesakes.

The models can sometimes appear to be quite crudely constructed when seen up close, because they were intended to be hung high up in darkened churches where their detail could not easily be seen. Some features on a votive or church model, such as the guns and masts, can appear to be over-sized and out of scale with the rest of the model. This was done deliberately to make them more distinct when seen from below and at a distance.

The European church ship models have been the subject of many studies and books, in particular those in Denmark, northern Germany and the Netherlands, however, no such systematic survey of the British church ships has ever been undertaken. My research looks in detail at ship models in churches around Scotland.

Meredith Greiling is Curator of Windermere Jetty Museum, Cumbria, England, and is undertaking a History of Art PhD at the University of Hull on Maritime Sculpture and its Contexts.

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