A Ship in Church

A Ship in Church

The Danish custom of hanging the replica of a sailing vessel in the church sanctuary is widespread in Denmark and in churches of Danish origin in America. It has two sources of origin. It must first of all be said that the custom of giving the replica of a ship to the sanctuary is very ancient. It can be traced back to times long preceding Christianity. The ancients believed that the offering of a miniature ship would assure a safe voyage for ship and its crew. Such a gift is called a votive offering. In the Christian era the magic character of this act faded away, but the tradition of carving and rigging a replica of the ship in which a retired seamen had spent his life remained as a hobby of many an old salt, and what better place could it be hung than in the parish church.

This folk custom coincided with an ancient Christian metaphor of comparing the church itself to a ship. Even to this day we call the main sanctuary of our churches the “nave”, and this name is obviously derived fro the Latin word navis, which means ship and which is the origin of words such as “navy” and “naval”. The metaphor of the church as a ship has many symbolic connections. We speak of the Christian life as a journey over the sea and we talk about a pilot that guides us. A well-known hymn reads: “Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea.” The World of Council of Churches uses the ship with a cross as its mast as a symbol of ecumenism. The ship is probably not a major Christian symbol but it is an appropriate one.

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