Melchers’ Little Flying Dutchman

An old ship model now hangs aloft in one corner of Gari Melchers’ studio at Belmont. It is the very same model the painter suspended from the ceiling of his studio in Holland years earlier, as documented by a photograph of his studio interior from around 1890/95.

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The ship model reproduces a three-masted sailing vessel. It is not the typical shallow-drafted fishing botter or bom of the North Sea, with their funny wings (leeboards) that extend out over the water to steady the boat as the nets are worked in the wind. Models reproducing that Dutch type are also on display in the Belmont studio.

Why hang a ship model from the ceiling? Melchers loved all things Dutch and immersed himself in that culture by adopting many of the age-old traditions of his seafaring community. In the region where Melchers once lived and worked, ships models were commonly hung from the ceilings of churches.

Consider the architectural shape and principal features of any Christian church, most notably its vaulting and nave.  Churches have been metaphorically seen as upturned ship’s hulls (the Latin for ship is navis). The imagery of the ship too, has often been viewed as an allegory for the voyage of a Christian life, sometimes navigating through peace, sometimes through storm, to its eventual berth in the Kingdom of God. Several times in the Bible, from Noah’s ark to the miracle of Jesus calming the Sea of Galilee, we read of stories about ships and boats weathering storms with God’s help. So it is not surprising that ship models should appear in churches.

Votive ship models displayed in Western European churches, especially those located in port towns, were common as far back as the Middle Ages. The practice most likely originated out of Denmark, and because of North Holland’s strong trading ties to early Scandinavian sea culture, the tradition proliferated there, exactly where Melchers lived and drew his inspiration.

A church’s ship model might serve as a symbol of a town’s dependence on the sea for its livelihood, presented as a gift by a local shipper’s or fishermen’s guild. The models might also act as reminders of a life or lives lost or as a protection from the perils of the sea for local ships and their crew. Sometimes the ships were gifted in gratitude by sailors who had survived dangerous trips or war at sea.

Gari Melchers’ ship model appeared together with the related painting Old and Young as a Spotlight Exhibition loan in 2016, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Robert G. Beck, who acquired both pieces in the late 1970s and who have generously presented the ship model as a permanent gift to Gari Melchers Home and Studio.

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