The Schlüsselfeld Ship. Source: Wikipedia
The Schlüsselfeld Ship. Source: Wikipedia

The Schlüsselfeld Ship

In the 14th century, it became fashionable to decorate tables at noble or royal banquets with models of ships, symbolising “Good Luck” and “Fair Wind”. Later, the wealthy merchants in the cities picked up this fashion. The Schlüsselfeld ship is one of the more famous.

Schlüsselfeld Ship. Source: Wikipedia
Schlüsselfeld Ship. Source: Wikipedia

In the High Middle Ages, models of ships were used as votive gifts to churches and saints. Later, in the 13th century, ship-models became fashionable at royal courts in England and France. Later the fashion became more widespread in Europe. Also, these ship-models turned into must-haves for the wealthy patricians in the cities, who organised the long-distance trade in luxuries as well as international banking.

One of the most impressive of these ships – or “nefs” as they are commonly called is the Schlüsselfeld Ship made in Nuremberg in 1503. Occasionally believed to have been created by Albrecht Dürer the Elder, the model measures 79 cm in height and 43,3 cm in length.

This ship-model was made for Wilhelm Schlüsselfeld (1483-1549), who was head of an influential merchant family in Nuremberg. A recent study of the model and the archaeological and archival evidence carried out by Maik-Jens Springmann shows that the ship – though not to scale – provides us with an accurate and realistic idea of the art of shipbuilding and seafaring in the late middle ages.

According to Springmann, the ship can be identified as a carrack or kraeck, common in the Later Middle Ages. Evolved from the single-masted cog in the mid 15th century, it soon became the work-horse of the great discoveries and global trade in the early modern period. One feature – which is discernible on the Schlüsselfeld model – is the fore- and stern castles, absent from the models of cogs from Mataró and Ebersdorf. These could be turned into defensive strongholds, from where positioned archers might shoot down on pirates bordering below. As necessary, the ship also sported other defensive features – especially guns, three on each side and one gun positioned at front. On the model called “De Charles Quint” a gun was also jutting out of the mouth of the figurehead, in that case a dragon. This is not the case on the Schlüsselfeld, but as its figurehead looks exactly like that of the “Gribshunden” found on a wreck in the Baltic, further studies might shed light on this feature.

The Schlüsselfeld Ship. Source: Wikipedia
The Schlüsselfeld Ship. Source: Wikipedia

Another feature is the realistic setting of the masts and the sails indicating the ship had just left the harbour. Springmann provides us with an interesting comparison of the masts, rigging and sails from other models and paintings as well as how reconstructions of different vessels have played out.

Apart from the ship itself, the model holds 74 figurines of soldiers, seamen, and travellers, which provide a snapshot of life on-board. The figures were cast in lead, enamelled and painted; as was also the case on the Reliquary of Ursula. However, the peopling of the Schlüsselfeld is rather more detailed and presents several insights into clothing, hats, entertainment, dining and wining. The scenes are carefully described by Springmann. Particularly charming is the scene with the dinner at the aftcastle. Unfortunately, a full photo collection or a pamphlet is as yet not available for us to study all the details.

Although the Sclüsselfeld Ship is not a full-scale model, it does provide us with much information on shipbuilding, seafaring and the social life surrounding the organisation of long-distance trade in the 15th and 16th century.

Likely, this quality was especially valuable to Wilhelm Schlüsselfeld. When hosting dinners for the shareholders in his mercenary adventures, his fellow merchants, and other friends, we must imagine the ship might cause endless chattering. Likely some of the stories had the quality of those we know of from Tuscan travellers from Florence, who wrote them down in their diaries or Ricordanze.


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