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Agnes Oswald, a model made by James Welsh in 1830 for Gilcomston Parish Church, Aberdeen; now in Aberdeen Maritime Museum.
Agnes Oswald, a model made by James Welsh in 1830 for Gilcomston Parish Church, Aberdeen; now in Aberdeen Maritime Museum.

Sacred Vessels

Monday June 16 2014

Museum curator Meredith Greiling highlights a new survey of Scotland’s church ship models.

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

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.

So it is not surprising perhaps that ship models should appear in churches too.

In Europe the Christian tradition of votive ship models in churches, such as the three on display at Aberdeen Maritime Museum, is recorded as early as the 15th century. A votive model would have been a common sight in churches around ports and in fishing communities around the Mediterranean, Baltic and North Seas.

Shipmasters would commission models for churches as a votive offering, in fulfilment 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, however the inclusion of votive ship models in post-Reformation churches was also common in Protestant countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands, northern Germany and indeed Scotland.

Early votive models served as a reminder to congregations of their dependence on the sea for their livelihoods, but later 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 these 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 who bear no relation to their namesakes. A ship model named ‘Phesdo’, given to celebrate the opening of the new Nigg Parish Church in 1829 by Captain Affleck, was considered for many years to have been named after a Royal Navy vessel which defended the coast during the Napoleonic wars. However, no such vessel of that name has ever served in the Royal Navy and it seems likely that the name refers to Phesdo House in nearby Kincardineshire.

Whatever their age, type or condition, what is certain is that these ships of faith have long been a part of the Christian tradition in seafaring communities, and some have even found berths far inland.

The European models have been the subject of many studies and books over the past 50 years. However, no such systematic survey of the British North Sea votive ships has ever been undertaken.

I am curator of the maritime history collections at Aberdeen Maritime Museum, and am undertaking a doctoral study of these fascinating church ships. I would like to hear from any congregations outwith Aberdeen who have a votive ship model in their church, or indeed from those churches who may have had a ship model in the past.

I can be contacted by email: mgreiling@aberdeencity.gov.uk or by post at Aberdeen Maritime Museum, Shiprow, Aberdeen, AB11 5BY

This is an abridged version of an article in July's Life and Work. Subscribe here