Vasa Museum, Stockholm

I’m in Stockholm this week, a beautiful city set across a series of small islands. One of these, Djurgarden, is home to many of the city’s museums, from Skansen, a historical village and zoo, to the Waldermarsudde, the former resident of the painting and art collecting Prince Eugens. Perhaps the most extraordinary of these is the Vasa Museum, an institution dedicated to an enormous warship, sunk in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628, now salvaged and on display in the central hall of the museum.

The Vasa was commissioned by Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden, at the height of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), and was meant to be the most powerful warship ever built. Designed with two gun decks, and loaded with heavy artillery, it would have been a formidable force had it ever made it out to open water. Unfortunately Gustav’s plans proved over ambitious, and the ship only travelled 1300 metres before capsizing due to a lack of ballast.

Entering the museum now, the great, hulking body of the ship makes an incredible impression of size and grandeur. It is encrusted in elaborate allegorical carvings, which would once have been brightly painted and even gilded. Soaked in sea water for centuries, these sculptures have been mottled and darkened, lending an air of decay and otherworldliness to the vast ship. The gruesome visages and grimacing lions were once meant to signify the supreme power of the Swedish King; now they seem only to speak of his fatal folly.

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