Allegory: the Ship of State

An allegorical painting, with a full-rigged ship curiously equipped with oars in the middle foreground, sails billowing as it moves through the water. The ship, on a green sea, steers its way through small islands of barren rock, where dangers threaten. To the right in the background is an island with a cave, wherein wolves lurk. In front to the right, a volcano spews out flames and rocks. The rock in the right foreground appears to be hit by a meteorite. In the centre foreground two mermaids (symbols of lasciviousness) with looking glasses are arranged, holding combs in their hands and resting on a rock. To the left is another rock and behind a giant, waist high, in the water. He brandishes a club with his right hand in the direction of the ship. In the left distance, two giants stand on another rock and they also brandish clubs. These represent the dangers to which the ship will succumb if she founders.

The allegory alludes to the political disaffection between the Low Countries and Spain, and the Protestant revolt against the Roman Catholic Church, the state church of Spain; thus the ship can be equated with the Catholic Church, under Phillip II.

In 1555, Charles V of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, resigned his rule over both Spain and the Netherlands to his son Philip, who disliked the northern European territories and their heretical tendencies. His oppressive rule led to the epochal war of independence waged from 1568 to 1648 by the Dutch against Spain. The Protestant movement rapidly gained ground during this period and challenged the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the Spanish Inquisition. Philip sent Spanish troops commanded by the Duke of Alva to the Netherlands but their excessively harsh policies resulted in open revolt. In 1579 the Union of Utrecht, an anti-Spanish alliance, was formed and by 1581 the Dutch provinces proclaimed their independence from Spain.

The occupants of the ship, who may represent named individuals, are arranged in several groups representing hierarchies within the Catholic Church. In the front, rowers are seated, not actively holding the oars but gazing fixedly ahead. In the group behind them two monks stand on the far left, wearing habits from different orders, and behind them a bearded patriarch holds a crozier. He wears a mitre and stands next to a man with a crown who may be intended to represent the Duke of Alba. Next to him a man wearing a crown and holding a sceptre looks in alarm towards the meteorite landing on the rocks in the foreground to the right. He wears a red cloak with an ermine collar and may represent Phillip II. To the right two cardinals dressed in red stand in front of the last two figures in the stern. The man on the left wears robes and a mitre, and holds the triple or papal cross denoting the Pope. The robed man beside him with a blue cloak and mitre holds the Latin cross.

Object Details

ID: BHC0708
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: Francken, Frans
Date made: Late 16th century
Exhibition: Art for the Nation; Macpherson Collection
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Macpherson Collection
Measurements: Painting: 495 x 445 mm; Frame: 680 mm x 632 mm x 61 mm

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