Joshua Sofaer

Votive Ship

I am in Turku in the south west of Finland working with Mikko Sams, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Aalto University. In brief, we are exploring what happens in the brain when you accept alternative realities in fictional stories. This is what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, a phrase which has been both useful and critiqued, because you don’t really suspend your disbelief but rather hold together your belief (of the world of the fiction) and your knowledge that it is not reality, at the same time. This is the phenomenon that is at the heart of theatre, perhaps of all art. Discussing, reading, and writing with Mikko has already been a fascinating journey, attempting to chart unknown territory, and we both hope that it will continue after our first ideas sharing next week.

Mikko had talked to me about Turku Cathedral as a building he loved before we had even arrived in the city. Once we were here he reiterated his feeling for the place and encouraged me to go. Although I have worked in Turku several times before, I had never been inside. Encouraged by Mikko, I went in.

Turku Cathedral was consecrated close by the bank of the River Aura on 17th June 1300. Although it has seen its fair share of enemy attacks and fire damage, it has been rebuilt 6 times and carries its architectural layers in an honest and dignified way.

There are many things to like about this building. It is both grand and simple, epic and intimate. It is the religious centre of the country and plays an important part in its history. It is Finland’s main cathedral and its major national shrine.

On entering for the first time I looked up to the left and there, to my delighted surprise, I saw a ship sailing through the air.

Votive Ship 01

I later learnt that this is a votive ship; a tradition common across the Scandinavian countries. These models, sometimes called church ships, are generally created and given by seafarers and ship builders. Votives (from the Latin votivus, meaning ‘promised by a vow’) were given in return for safe passage through a perilous journey.

Votive Ship 02

This votive ship was made by Åke Sandvall and presented to the cathedral by the Turku Ship Master’s Association in 1968. It replaces an earlier model that was destroyed by fire. It depicts the barque, or sailing vessel, named Turku after this city, a whaling ship that sailed the Pacific.

On the first occasion I entered the cathedral and gazed up at her prow it was dusk. The light was behind her and there was a kind of haze in the air. At first I failed to see the iron hooked batons from which the model hangs and it seemed to be floating there in the half-light. It was a fantastical moment of make-believe.

Votive Ship 03

Depending on where you are standing in the nave, this little Turku peeks around pillars, sails off in the distance, or over your head.

Votive Ship 04

What I found is that I could ‘will’ myself into erasing the iron hooked batons, even after I knew they were there. Perhaps it was because I now knew, and no longer needed to ‘fact check’ how the thing was defying gravity, that I could decide to ignore them, to the point of their disappearance. This is the willing suspension of disbelief, the poetic faith, that Coleridge was writing about. And it is this very phenomenon of slipping in and out of it, by chance and by will, that Mikko and I are investigating.

Votive Ship 05

If you have the opportunity to visit Turku Cathedral, perhaps you would like to test it out yourself.

Votive Ship 06

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