Mataró – the oldest Museum Ship Model

By Sarah Hartshorn, exclusively for Gamla Model Makers/Model Making Knowledge Base

Mataró Model in Maritime Museum Rotterdam. Courtesy of jpa2003/Joop anker http://www.flickr.com/people/39073133@N07

One of the oldest and most famous medieval ship models in Western culture is the Mataró. Presently housed in the Maritime Museum Rotterdam based in the Netherlands, this Mediterranean trading ship was built in the 15th century according to recent carbon date testing. What makes the Mataró so remarkable is it is believed to have been presented to the Chapel of San Simón in the Spanish town of Mataró as a dedicated gift to the Virgin Mary.

In fact, most chapels during this time were often decorated with gifts of model ships. These gifts are more commonly known as ex votos, or votive offerings to a saint or divinity. Ex votos are given in fulfillment of a vow or devotion and are placed in churches where worshippers seek grace or wish to show gratitude. Sailors or other people who traveled by sea would place ex votos in the form of paintings, as well as ship models, in designated shrine areas and ask for blessings on their oceanic voyages.

More than 48 inches long and 22 inches wide, the Mataró model has been used as a basis for naval architecture research. Additionally, it has been used as a guide to determine cargo capacity, functional structures and engineering elements of ships that may have existed in the 1400s. A great deal of attention has been put into the Mataró’s details and the model itself was more than likely built by an actual shipbuilder. All historical evidence indicates that the Mataró is a scale model of an actual ship.

Unfortunately, church records of the Mataró were lost during the Spanish Civil War and no sources have been located that can provide indelible proof that it was truly presented as an ex voto. For instance, models of other ships, paintings and relics have been placed in churches for decoration or for commemoration and not necessarily just for the purposes of an ex voto blessing.

Mataró Model in Maritime Museum Rotterdam - fragment. Courtesy of Cybergabi http://www.flickr.com/people/cybergabi/

Truth be known, votive ship models are well documented through out history. To date, more than 165 votives have been discovered during archaeological excavations dating from 800 CE to the 1800s. Keep in mind that prior to understanding the Gulf Stream and barometric pressure, it was believed that God made storms at sea. Because sailors spent the majority of their time at sea, most felt that it was imperative to recognize a devotion to the god of the sea through the presentation of ex voto ship models.

A visit to Notre Dame de Grâce chapel situated in Honfleur on the Normandy coast reveals a mariner’s sanctuary that is filled with ship models. Dating back to 1600, seafarers made pilgrimages to this chapel and offered ex voto ship models for safe returns from their perilous journeys. Examples of the miniature vessels hang from the churches beams to this very day. Travel to other European coastal town churches unveil a multitude of ex voto ship models. Furthermore, King Edward III is known to have left a ship model at his father’s gravesite when he was spared from a shipwreck.

Not all ship models were elaborately constructed. Many were quite sparse and crude in design. Depending upon artistic ability, education level and other cultural variants, ship models could be as simple as a hollowed out oblong-shaped bowl. Although some model shapes do have full-sized counterparts, there is still a large amount of information needed to interpret and record ship model data correctly.

Spain Silver 5 ECU 1996 coin featuring the Mataró Ship Model. Side 2. From Coin catalogue.

Spain Silver 5 ECU 1996 coin featuring the Mataró Ship Model. Side 1. From Coin catalogue.

Based on historical findings, archaeological evidence and religious trends, it can be assumed that ex voto ship models were meant as signs of appeasement and protection. They should not be confused with talismans, which are associated with superstitious offerings. Ex votos are actions or material things that are literally vowed to God in return for a hoped-miracle or the answer of a prayer. In Latin, ex voto translates into ‘in fulfillment of a vow’ and it is quite evident that that is precisely what these ship models were intended to be.

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