Dining with Richard II. From: BL Royal, MS 14 E IV, fol 265 v. Source: wikipedia

Ships as Table Decorations in the Middle Ages

Ships were prized ornaments decorating the tables of kings and lords into the 16th and 17th century.

A King at a table. From: De Secretis Secretorum. ca. 1327-28 British Library Add 47680 fol 60 V. Ca.
A King at a table. From: De Secretis Secretorum. ca. 1327-28 British Library Add 47680 fol 60 V. Ca.

The first “nefs” or ship-models mentioned in the literature acted as votive offerings. Thus, in 1254 the French royal family was caught in a terrible storm in the Mediterranean crossing back from the Holy Land. According to the chronicler, Sieur de Joinville, the Queen afterwards presented the church, St. Nicolas-de-Port with a silver ship-model, which was made in Paris. And the model showed the ship, the king, the Queen, their three children, the sailors, the mast, the tillers, and the ropes; and the sails “were all sown with silver wire”, Joinville wrote.

However, in the 14th century, models of ships became fashionable as table decorations. The earliest depiction of a table laden with a ship is from 1327. From somewhat later (1380), we have a record of the treasury of Charles V of France[i], who owned two ships. One was intended to hold the salt, while another was destined to mark the seat of the king. Probably, these ships were those depicted in the manuscript, which recorded the banquet held in the honour of Charles IV in Paris in 1378. Many of such ships were used as salt cellars, but others were keepers of the private spoon and knife of the king as well as his napkin.

Banquet at the French Court in a manuscript made for Charles V 14th century
Banquet in the honor of Charles IV at the Palais de Cité. From the translation of the Grandes Chronique, made for Charles V.
From: Grandes Chroniques de France, ms. fr. 2813, fol. 473v, fin XIVe s., Paris, Bnf

According to several painted illuminations and existing examples of such ship-models, this fashion continued for the next 150 years. Curiously enough, it continued both in royal, noble, and bourgeois settings, indicating the widespread importance of shipping and trading in the later Middle Ages, when ships represented not only huge investments but also acted as evocative symbols of the prosperity of the ship-owners, merchants and nobles. In a broader context, these nefs came to symbolise “good fortune and fair sailing” or just “fair wind”.

As trading vessels were seldom privately owned, but rather the property of shipping companies, flaunting models of ships at the centre of tables at banquets also came to symbolise the commonality of the networks involved in this international business.

While some nefs were small, others were so huge that they would overpower the person, of which they were placed in front. Also, they might differ as to the phantasy involved in their creation.

Thus, some nefs provide us with detailed models of the ship, its construction and rigging. One such nef, is the ship which was turned into the “Reliquary for St. Ursula at Rheims”. This ship was made in Tours c. 1500 and that year presented as a gift to Anne de Bretagne, when she entered the city on a visit. Later, in 1505, the ship was turned into a reliquary for St. Ursula. Unfortunately, the Queen replaced the figurines at this point, turning them into the saint and her followers. This “nef” measures 46 cm in height and 28 cm. in length. The price of the ship amounted to 7% of the total income of Tours that year.

A second nef belonging to this category is the so-called “Burghley Nef” which was made in Paris by Pierre le Flamand in 1482-3. Its hull is constructed out of a nautilus shell mounted with silver, unfurled sails, and sailors climbing the rig. There are even two sailors who play chess at the forecastle. The Burghley nef would probably have been specially commissioned.

At first, nefs were primarily prized in France and Italy, but their appeal was soon more widespread, reaching Germany, Spain and the Low Countries, where it became a prized object among the patricians in the large cities.

A third nef, the Schlüsselfeld Ship belongs to this more modern category. Recently studied in detail, the model is a very realistic depiction of a vessel sailing the trading routes from the Baltic to the Mediterranean presenting us with a charming rendition of the construction of such ships, the actual sea-craft involved, as well as life on board. Perhaps created by the father of Albrecht Dürer, this model was made for Wilhelm Schlüsselfeld (1483-1549) in Nuremberg.


Mechanical ships

Ship deck on London Nef Source: Wikipedia
Ship deck on London Nef
Source: Wikipedia

A couple of these realistic nefs were even more elaborate as they were turned into automata. One such nef is currently in the British Museum, while another is kept in the

Musee de la Renaissance at Ecuen. This latter ship is a mechanical wonder believed to have belonged to the emperor, Rudolph II (1552-1612) and goes under the name of “De Charles Quint”. Both ships appeared to have belonged to Charles the V, who sits enthroned directly beneath the mainmast. Both scenes created on the deck of the London Nef recalls the coronation and enthronement of the Emperor, Charles V, who is surrounded by the seven electors and other heralds.

Both of these ships were created by the goldsmith Hans Schlotheim, a clockmaker born in Naumburg but settled in Augsburg, where he became Meister in 1576. After 1586, Schlotheim was invited to work in Prague and Dresden, where he built the Tower of Babel and the Christmas Crib Automaton.

Both ships are exceptionally large, each measuring almost a cubic meter and made of nearly solid gilded silver. They represent a fortune, and it is unlikely Schlotheim created the ships as pure advertising. He must have had a patron. Also, both ships are vivid enactments of the coronation of Charles V, intended to underwrite the shaky foundation of his grandson Rudolph II. The latter ruled at a time when the religious wars continued to set their mark upon Germany and neighbouring realms. The date of the ship-models is contested, although it is generally assumed that the two ships were created before his sojourn in Prague. 

Seeing the ships in the respective museums derives the visitor of the experience, which must have been that of diners at the banquets organised by the royal owners. Sitting in front of the ships in flickering candlelight must have created a unique atmosphere of movement helped along by the spiralling motifs and the embossed and incised patterns of turbulent water populated by chimaeras and other sea monsters; especially if the clockwork was set in motion letting the ship go live.


[i] Inventaire du mobilier de Charles V, roi de france. Ed. and transl. by J. Labarte. Paris, Imprimatur Nationale (1888).


The Schlüsselfeld Ship Model of 1503
By Maik-Jens Springmann
In: The Marriner’s Mirror. The International Quaterly Journal of the Society for Nautical Research (2020). Online: 28.10.2020

La Nef. Offerte en 1500 par les Tourangeaux, à la Reine Anne de Bretagne.
By Philippe Rouillac.
In: Mémoires Vol 25. Académie de Toraine 2012

The Machinations of German Court Culture: Early Modern Automata. A dissertation.
By Jessica Keating.
Evanston, Illinois 2010.


Schlüsselfeld Ship. Detail. Source: Wikipedia/Wolfgang Sauber



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