The Models

The Medieval Galleon

Maritime Innovation In Miniature

The Medieval Galleon

This is a model of an unknown galleon from northern Europe - that dates from the 1590s.

It is a ‘votive’ ship model – meaning that the model was built to be displayed in a church, by suspending the vessel from the roof so that it appears to float in the air above the congregation, a practice that was known throughout Christian Europe.

The model was probably built between 1590 and 1610, possibly in the Low Countries. Originally it hung in Stockholm Cathedral. It is the oldest such ship model in Scandinavia.

Votive ships were given as gifts by seamen, as a token of gratitude for a safe return from a hazardous voyage.

It’s a powerful reminder of how dangerous seafaring was, how safety was once secured by faith alone. It was also an important way of keeping the distant maritime world at the forefront of people’s daily lives.

With a ship on display in such a striking manner it was much more difficult to ignore the plight of seafarers: models like this kept lives at sea a hot topic.

The model’s dimensions are slightly out of proportion from how the actual ship would have appeared –because it was designed to be viewed from below. The shape of the hull has been unrealistically reduced.

The wavy line painted on the lower portion of the hull indicates the waterline. Although not an exact recreation of a galleon it is nonetheless it is strongly suggestive of the design features that made galleons these ships a success – the invention of the galleon was one of the most significant innovations in maritime the entire history of shipbuilding.

What made the galleon stand out from its predecessor – the carrack – was the comparatively longer and narrower lines of her hull. Together with the lowering of the carrack’s forecastle galleons were more stable, manoeuvrable and faster – which made them more versatile.

They were used for both trade and war and became the prototype of the purpose-built, broadside-armed warship that dominated maritime history for the next three hundred years and changed the world.

The hull is lavishly decorated with miniature portraits; perhaps passengers peering out.

Among these figures are monks, a merchant, a sad looking fellow with a big nose, a black chorister. Set above them and towards the stern – the area of the ship set aside for officers and  favoured passengers we see several women: a harp-playing lady, another looking at herself in a mirror and one with an exotic bird perched on her hand.

The painted decorations include wine leaves pillars, roaring lions and mythical creatures. Here we have griffins  which were half eagle and half lion and also basilisks, a type of legendary serpent.

It’s all a bit Harry Potter but the depiction of basilisks is particularly interesting as they were used as a symbol of protestant heresy during the religious wars of this period that grew out of the reformation and ravaged northern Europe.

The model has been badly damaged over the centuries: the distinctive rig of the galleon, its masts, and bowsprit are all missing. All that is left are sad broken stumps.

We know, however, exactly how the rig would have appeared. ~She would have been rigged with had four masts. The foremost two would have been rigged with square sails hanging from three yards at right angles to the hull.

The aft-most two masts would have been quite different - rigged with triangular – lateen - sails set in line with the hull. This hybrid rig combined the power of the traditional cargo vessel’s square sails with the ease of handling of smaller vessels rigged fore-and-aft.

The beakhead is also missing, a key design feature of a galleon which would have suspended out from the bow allowing the sailors to work the sails above. This was also the area where the ship’s toilets would have been – as the waste would drop into the sea.

For the health of the crew such management of human waste was a key development in safety at sea. The quarter galleries are also missing. there is a clear mark where they would have been joined to the model.

There would have been a lavishly decorated balcony providing the officers with access to fresh air and light and from where the officer they could view the world through which they travelled in comfort and style.

The ship’s rudder is missing. This would have been attached to the sternpost with hinge-like fittings known as gudgeons and pintels. It would  be operated using a tiller extending into the ship.

This would be moved by a helmsman using a vertical lever – known as a whipstaff, but the helmsman would be below deck with no view of the sails or sea. He steered in response to orders from an officer above.

The model has gunports through which cannon once protruded. It’s noticeable how close they would have been to the waterline, a major problem for ship designers in this period. To have the guns too high in the vessel would threaten its stability; but to have them too low would risk water pouring in.

The problem was not really solved for two hundred more years when adequate mathematics were developed to improve ship design.

A reconstruction of how the original model might have looked was built in the ship-model workshop of the Swedish national maritime museum in the 1950s and is now on display in Stockholm cathedral, suspended in the air in its rightful place above the heads of a wondering congregation.