Saturday, 29 September 2012

Meeting Vasa

Stockholm, Sweden
22nd September, 2012

I bought my ticket in the lobby and passed into the Vasa Museum. One goes to see a preserved sailing ship expecting to see a ship. What I saw before me when I passed through the doors brought tears to my eyes.

The Vasa story is a classic tragedy. Hubris then Nemesis. The warship set out on her maiden voyage from Stockholm harbour in August, 1628. Five minutes from shore, before a crowd of onlookers, a gust of wind struck her amidships and she heeled over, water poured into the open gun ports, and she sank with the loss of 50 lives. Simple design faults and royal ambition were to blame. Vasa lay on the seabed for 233 years in 60 m (120 ft) of water, preserved by the brackish waters of the Baltic, until she was lifted for conservation and reconstruction. The Museum has been built around these remains, using concrete and copper sheeting. There are five floors, and a visitor may choose what level he wishes to view the ship from: perhaps a grandstand from above, a side panorama, or a gaze from below. There are side displays of cannons and objects recovered from the wreck, including skulls from her skeleton crew; their faces have touchingly been restored to life in wax.

The Vasa is a huge brown hulk towering up in spotlit gloom. Carved timbers shape a curve from stem to stern. Her body is lined with gun ports, each adorned with a lion mask; her stern rises high with sculpted figures; her prow juts forward like a beak. Overhead, masts rise to half their original height, ending in crows' nests and held in place by a complex of rigging.

Resting between the worlds of the living and the dead, Vasa somehow resembles the pitted, oaken carcase of a sunken pirate vessel. She has been brought to the surface and thoroughly dried out, but still has a whiff of darkness about her: Vasa is one of the Undead.

Vasa is also beautiful. Humanity is evident in the sweep of her planking, the animation of her carving, the rhythms of her cordage and the scale of her doomed ambition. I have seen many admirable buildings in my time, but never a human construction so large and yet so fragile, so vastly venerable.

Vasa is an awesome artefact that has become a place of pilgrimage, one of the wonders of the world. People whisper round her much as they might round the casket of an uncorrupted body in a cathedral. She is a message from another world, handed over to our own for some extraordinary reason.

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