The Ship of the Church

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Ship image found in Christian catacombs

The ship (bark or barque, barchetta) was an ancient Christian symbol. Its is the Church tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution but finally reaching safe harbor with its cargo of human souls. Part of the imagery comes from the ark saving Noah’s family during the Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21). Jesus protecting the Peter’s boat and the apostles on the stormy Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). It was also a great during times when Christians needed to disguise the cross, since the ship’s mast forms a cross in many of its depictions..

Bronze lamp of ship of St. Peter and Paul
Ship-shaped lamp with Pietro e Paolo Apostles, Bronze, late 4th-early 5th century. Uffizi Gallery, Florence

“In the Apostolic Constitutions (II, xlvii) the bishop surrounded by the assembly of the faithful is compared to the helmsman of a ship; but the idea is as old as Tertullian (De bap., xii; P. L., l, 1214) and it was varied sometimes by comparing the Church to the Ark of Noah. In any case the ship was a recognized Christian symbol and Clement of Alexandria approved it for a signet ring. “Let the dove or the fish”, he says, “the vessel flying before the wind, — or the marine anchor be our signets” (Paed. III, ii; P. G., VIII, 633). Numerous representations of ships, sometimes serving as the design for a lamp, with the figure of Christ or St. Peter as helmsman are preserved to us. The name which we still retain for the “nave” (French, nef) of a church bears testimony to the persistence of the same idea.” (Herbert Thurston, “Symbolism,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909). The ship is also sometimes used as an emblem of St. Jude.

Gravestone of Firmia Victora, showing ship symbol
Gravestone of Firmia Victora, Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican, Rome

In an illustration for Psalm 69 from the Belleville Breviary, chosen to accompany the sacrament of Confirmation, St. Peter lies in a boat on a storm-tossed sea while God blesses him from the heavens, symbolizing the soul’s refuge in time of trial in the ship of the Church which is blessed by God. The final traditional symbolic meaning of the ship is a means of conveyance between this world and the next. In Christian tradition, in which earthly life was seen as a pilgrimage, the ship of the church transports the faithful through the seas of the world to the heavenly home. (Ideas from Chaucer and the Image of Narrative, by V. A. Kol

 

 

 

 

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About jculler1972

My husband is the pastor of St. Paul's Free Lutheran Church in Leitersburg, Maryland. I have two grown daughters and a granddaughter and am retired after a career in Purchasing. I have published articles in The Lutheran Ambassador, Lutheran Witness, and Lutheran Digest. My Bible study on the Book of Acts was recently published by the Women's Missionary Federation of the AFLC(Association of Free Lutheran Churches).

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