They Came In Ships!
Model Ships in Norwegian Churches

Model Ship in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Islip, New York

“The Journey of Life through the Church”

Most Norwegian churches are built in the Gothic style with a center aisle and balconies supported by pillars running along both sides. You first enter a room or porch called "våpenhus" (weapon house). The churchgoers in bygone days had to leave their weapons there before entering the actual church. The center aisle is called "midtskip", the areas below the balconies are called "sideskip", and the chancel is in the "tverrskip".  Just inside the entrance is the organ balcony, and the model ship hangs above the center passage-way just beyond the organ balcony, always facing the altar.

There is a suggestion that the model ships have something to do with the fact that the Norwegians are traditionally a seafaring people. After all, Norway had the largest merchant navy in the world per capita, and the 2nd or 3rd in tonnage altogether, but it is that the ships symbolize “life’s voyage across the sea of life”.

The tradition is closely related to the sea, and one probably would not find many model ships in churches inland. Another aspect of the symbolism is that for seamen the hull of the ship is seen as the borderline between life and death. It is not known how old the tradition is. However, a reference book at the library about renaissance religious art has a section on model ships which records that the tradition dates back to at least the renaissance. The ship is a symbolism in the Christian tradition, states that as a general rule the ship can be seen as a symbol of the journey through life. "Life in this world is like a stormy ocean that we have to cross to lead our ship safely into harbor”. Therefore, if we are able to resist the perils of humanity along life’s route, the church it will lead us to eternal life in heaven.

Often the church itself is symbolized by a ship, for example "Noah's Ark" that leads us to the heavenly goal - like a church ship (kirkeskip) where the tower is the mast and the pillars are the rudder. The cross is either seen as the mast or as the anchor of hope. 

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Islip, New York
754 Montauk Highway, Islip, NY 11751 Phone: (631) 581-4950

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Copyright 2008 by Lawrence H. Lund Last Modified on: February 2017