Days of Yore
From sculpted figurehead to corporate logo: Flaunt it!
AMSTERDAM _ No ship was ever launched without someone wanting to spruce it up with elaborate figureheads, ornaments, animals, heraldic designs or, of late, corporate logos. Decorating ships was common in the ancient world. The Egyptians painted an eye on a boat. Or mounted a carved head in human or animal form.
The Greek, Roman or Viking mariners did likewise. The 70-m long Bayeaux tapestry, relating the run-up to the Norman conquest of England, shows vessels with dragon and beast heads. In the Middle Ages, the focus was on the stern. The fore castles left no room for bow figureheads so they carried mostly heraldic designs and painted decorations on larger vessels. By the 16th century, the bow was extended by a galleon from which the foresails were handled. That made room for figureheads of first-rate vessels. They were finely carved. On Dutch ships, the lion would typically be painted red with a golden mane. The purpose of the figurehead was to indicate the ship’s name in a non-literate society. Or show its origin or its owner’s wealth and might. At the height of the Baroque period, some ships boasted figureheads weighing several tons, sometimes twinned on both sides of the bowsprit.
In time, the sterns began to attract a riotous wealth of decorations. The transom of the Amsterdam (right) belonging to the Dutch East India Company resembled an Amsterdam canal house facade _ indicating the city commissioned the ship. If that was not enough, on the East Indiaman the stern is book-ended by giant statues. In the 17th century, the galleon had disappeared forcing the bow lion back, its back now propped up against the bow. Other figures, often historical or mythological, appeared but no longer in vivid colors. They were often painted white and they disappeared altogether in the 19th century leaving the bow unadorned. In Britain, figureheads for larger warships were abolished in 1894. Decorative carving on smaller naval craft survived until the First World War.
In the Netherlands, the legacy of fancy ship decorations lives on with pride in the country’s sizable fleet of classic round and flat-bottom sailing yachts. You may see the rear end of a rudder covered with animals _ like otters, beavers and snakes _ climbing out of the water. Or helms decorated often with dreamy or even cartoonesque humans (left) or elaborately crafted lions.
It is said that In Germany, Belgium, and Holland, people once believed that Kaboutermannekes (water fairies) dwelt in the figureheads.They guarded the ship from sickness, rocks, storms, and dangerous winds. If the ship sank, the Kaboutermannekes guided the sailors’ souls to the hereafter. To sink without a Kaboutermanneke condemned the sailor’s soul to haunt the sea forever. It is still common practice for warships to carry large plaques mounted on the superstructures with a unique design relating to the ship’s name or role. For example Type 42 Destroyers of the Royal Navy are named after British cities and show their namesakes’ coats of arms.
Ship decorations never serve a specific or practical function, other than to vent symbolism. In that sense, these days ornaments find a more powerful outlet on land. Have you checked the front of a Mercedes, a Rolls Royce or a truck lately?