Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

The Schip Model in Aberdeen: Profane Sculpture in a Sacred Space

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

The Schip Model in Aberdeen: Profane Sculpture in a Sacred Space

Article excerpt

The display of a secular object, such as a ship model, in a sacred space, such as a church or shrine, has a powerful effect on how the object is perceived, elevating it to a new status and encouraging the viewer to reconsider its meaning and significance. This article seeks to consider the aesthetic, cultural and political importance of one type of church sculpture, the so-called 'votive ship' model, and by close study of one seventeenth-century model to better understand the interplay between the object and its meaning for the generations of people who have used it for prayer, intercession, study and display.

Sculptures, particularly in post-Reformation churches, often play a complex role within the life of the church, and their interpretation and origins can become obscured by folkloric tradition. This is particularly true of ship models in churches; commonly designated as 'votive ships',1 these maritime sculptural totems very rarely had any actual votive function, but nevertheless fulfilled other vital roles for the church community, whether memorial or through the representation of power and wealth.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines ex-voto thus: 'offered, consecrated, in fulfilment of a vow; a solemn promise or an oath to God'. In Catholic pre-Reformation era churches, votive offerings were commonplace, most often made and given to a church or holy shrine for healing purposes. The votive offering might be made into the form of a leg, eye, arm or other body part in need of healing, and they performed a very real magical intercession for the person making the offering.

Offerings could also be made in the shape of little ships as intercessions for sailors. Although there are references to votive ship offerings being made of precious materials such as silver, or of having their hulls filled with gold coins, there are also written records of ship models made of wood and wax, for example those left as offerings at the popular medieval shrine at the Chapel of St Anne in the Wood, near Bristol.2 William Wyrcestre, who wrote an account of visiting the chapel in 1480, describes five ships made of silver used for burning incense, but also thirty-two 'ships and little ships were hing [sic] up in the Chapel'.3 This shrine and its chapel, along with its contents, did not survive the Reformation of the following century which saw such intercessions as blasphemous.

In Europe the tradition of votive ship models in churches is recorded as early as the fifteenth century. Examples can be seen in Carpaccio's Apparition of the Ten Thousand Martyrs (c.1515), showing the interior of a Venetian church where the little ships hang, apparently floating high above the parading martyrs. Indeed the oldest European ship models are those which survive from churches; the Mataró model, owned by Rotterdam Maritime Museum,4 and the Ebersdorf model in Germany, both of which date from between 1400 and 1450, and both of which have been the subject of recent research. The Ebersdorf model, which can still be seen in its original church context although now only the shell of the wooden hull remains, is referred to locally as the 'Little Gold Ship'5 and, as is often the case with ship models, has inspired local folklore. The legend of the Ebersdorf 'Little Gold Ship', is recounted in full by Christensen and Steusloff, where its first mention is traced to 1815 in an account by August Schumann which refers to 'a small hanging ship, probably in commemoration of a chivalrous procession to the holy sepulchre'.6 The longer, more romantic version of the tale is attributed to Widar Ziehnert, published in 1838 in Sachsens Volkssagen (Saxonian Folk Sayings). It is a long ballad about a nobleman called Wolf von Lichtenwald (the House of Lichtenwalde was responsible for the maintenance of the Ebersdorf Collegiate Church where the model is displayed) returning from the Holy Land where he had been sent to fight nobly in battle in order to win the hand of his fair Kunigunde. …

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