Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Last ship, best ship
The picturesque town of Porvoo in southern Finland, crowed by the cathedral's colorful gable.
I've been, albeit quietly, fascinated by sailing ships for most of my life. But never was it more pronounced than as I stood in the main aisle of the small Lutheran cathedral in Porvoo, Finland, looking up at a beautifully painted vessel, delicately suspended from the ceiling. A curator from the local museum was with me and explained that centuries ago ships were often given to churches by local sailors in an expression of gratitude to God for safe passage. Their presence in churches also came to represent our "navigation" through life and later, during the 18th and 19th centuries, they memorialized family members who had immigrated to North America. It hit home, I suppose, because it was very much my own family's story.
The votive ship, as they are sometimes called, is visible just at the upper right of this image, and also of the image below.
A rare photograph of the ship, taken by a tourist and posted online.
I don't know what brought that ship to mind today, but it was enough to get me Googling for an image, since I failed to take one whilst standing there. So with a few taps and clicks of the computer, up came the church. And then the heartbreaking news that on May 29, 2006, the church was virtually destroyed by arson. I could cry just thinking about it. The roof was a total loss, but various reports online imply that much of the interior was spared, particularly the frescoes, thanks in large part to the gentle work of fire fighters, who proceeded to quell the flames with as little water as possible. The saddest report though, was that of the chandeliers - and presumably the ship - crashing to the floor.
Devastating though it is, this is not altogether unfamiliar territory for the cathedral. In 1508 it was burned by Danish forces and in 1571, 1590, and yet again in 1708, it was burned by the Russian military. And if that weren't enough, it was bombed in 1941! Each time it recovered, saving what treasures is could, and below are images of how the interior looked shortly before the 2006 fire. Restoration is underway, but between funding and climate, the scars of this attack will be visible for decades to come.
Areas of Porvoo are expected to soon be designated world heritage sites under the protection of UNESCO - hopefully the cathedral will be added to the list. UNESCO can't protect the building from determined, 18 year-old arsonists but it can ensure a much higher penalty when they're brought to court.