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Boats and Ships

The Symbolic Meaning of  Boats and Ships in Gothic, Byzantine, Northern Renaissance and Italian Renaissance Painting

The boat along with the anchor and fish is one of the oldest Christian symbols. It is a symbol of saftey for Christians swimming in sea of  heathen evil, materialism, and persecution.
For Christians, since the days of the apostles, the ship has been a symbol for the Christian Church.  The mast and yardarm form a simple wooden cross which represents  Jesus.  For painters of the Gothic, Italian Renaissance and Northern Renaissance eras, symbols were part of a rich visual language. In a culture of limited literacy symbolic imagery was vital in keeping believers on the path to heaven. The boat was an essential part of mediaeval iconography. 

Boats are a symbolic means of transport along a spiritual path. The anchor and boat became a important Christian symbol during the period of Roman persecution. John 21:6: "And He said to them, 'Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.' So they cast, and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish."

A Fishing boat represents the kingdom of Christ and His followers.
Jesus chose fishermen as His disciples, and told them “follow me and I will make you fisher’s of men.”

The Ship of Fools is fairly common in Northern Renaissance art. 

The boat is a emblem of St. Ursula. She was often portrayed as helping sinners into her boat to save them from drowning in the seas depravity.

The Barque (boat or ship) of St. Peter,  refers to Peter, the first pope, who was a fisherman before becoming an apostle of Jesus. Water represents the Holy Spirit and Everlasting Life.

Ships symbolize trade, commerce and wealth.

The ark of Noah, represents God's faithful floating to safety through the great flood.

The ship is a symbol of the church, with the cross as its mast.

The ship is an attribute or emblem of St. Jude the Apostle,

The central seating area of a large church is called the "nave", which is Latin for "ship"

The steering oar or wheel of a boat represents power, knowledge, skill, and bravery in the person who wields it; without such a guide, few boats would attain a prosperous haven.

In ancient Greek mythology Boats were used  to carry the souls of the dead to heaven or hell.

Charles Baudelaire stated, "The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform."  Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Art are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism.  Narrative paintings, with their layer upon layers of readily understood symbolic meaning, provided  instruction to the uneducated commoners that yearned for scriptural understanding.   Paintings were used as guides that helped  illuminate the divine mysteries of  Church doctrine.

The Meaning of Sacred Symbols in Paintings. Most prominently featured  symbols and their meaning:

The  Serpent

Good Shepherd


Adam and Eve




Virgin Mary



The Anchor

The Apostles



Sun and Moon



The Cross

Architectural Elements



The Saints









Household Object

Clothing and Accessories


Important Words, People, Phrases, Characteristics related to the Northern Renaissance Art Movement -  allegorical painting,  rebirth, invention of oil painting,   Hieronymus Bosch, Limbourg Brothers, Desiderius Erasmus,  Robert Campin, Jan Van Eyck, Jean Fouquet, Albrecht Dürer, Johannes Gutenberg, Johann Reuchlin, Martin Luther, rise of the merchant class, world landscape,  Low Countries, Protestant Reformation, Calvinisim, glazing, impasto, scriptorium, illuminator, invention of the printing press, woodcuts, engravings, Antwerp School, Guild of Saint Luke, commerce, Flemish School, Northern Europe, Flanders, Bruges, renewed interest in classical learning,  mythological scenes, genre painting, landscapes, portraits, moralizing overtones, human vices, lust, paradise, spirituality, piousness, living a simple life, reformHuman Reasoning,  tradesmen at work, idyllic scenes of peasantsplaying games, feasting,  linear perspective, \Heliocentric Theory, humour, satire,  spiritually significant, illuminated manuscriptidealized biblical themes, scriptorium, emotion, illuminator,  iconoclast, Age of Discovery, Virgin and Child, axonometric drawing, curiosity about the natural world,  realistic use of colours and lightOld Testament stories, Gospel parables, The Blackdeath,  Christian symbolism

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