Painted in bright colours and with several hundred sculptures both fore and aft, Vasa was a colossal work of art that would make the rest of Europe admire and fear King Gustav II Adolf. An advertising campaign from seventeenth-century Sweden with an enormous budget.
Vasa was not just a warship; she was also intended to be a grand display window for Sweden and King Gustav II Adolf. There were approximately 700 sculptures and decorations on the ship. They were not chiefly there as decorations; significantly more important was what the sculptures told. The ornamentation would talk about how powerful the country the ship came from, and its king, were, and what ambitions they had – and they were great.
On both sides of the bowsprit, a projection at the fore of the ship, sat a total of twenty sculptures of Roman emperors. Ahead of them the figurehead – a three-meter long lion – was placed. The lion, holding the coat of arms of the Vasa dynasty in its front paws, has been preserved. Since mediaeval times, the Folkung Lion, has been a symbol of Swedish royal power, and it's easy to see the message: Gustav II Adolf was an heir to the emperors of the Roman Empire, and was going to build his own empire.
The stern, all the way at the back of the ship, was teeming with sculptures. One depicted Hercules, the hero of Greek and Roman mythology, who performed twelve labours. He symbolized characteristics such as strength, bravery, energy and wisdom, and Gustav II Adolf was to be seen as a Swedish Hercules.
One series of sculptures depicted the warriors of Gideon. The story is taken from the Old Testament in the Bible, and tells of how Gideon freed the Israelites when, with only 300 men, he defeated the much larger invading army of the Midianites.
The Swedish king didn't want to compare himself with just anybody.
Insulting the enemy
On Vasa, there were sculptures from Greek and Roman mythology, the Old Testament, and the Roman Empire. Others depicted actual or fictional persons from Swedish history, and armed warriors with suits of armour. But the ship was also adorned with things like lions, mermaids, angels, monsters and devils.
A part of the art was aimed directly at Poland, with whom Sweden was at war for many years in the 1600s. If you sat in either of the two privies that were located in the bowsprit of Vasa, for example, you could see two carved Polish noblemen hiding timidly under a table.
Colours that blended
Mårten Redtmer, a German and one of the seventeenth century's veritable master sculptors, made several of the most important sculptures on Vasa. Dutchman Johan Thesson and German Hans Clausink were two other sculptors who worked with the ship's ornamentation, together with several more assistants.
When the sculptures and other ornamentation were completed, they would be painted. This took place, as did much of the work on Vasa, on the ship yard Skeppsgården in Stockholm. From 1990 to 2002, conservator and art historian Peter Tångeberg researched how Vasa had been painted. Over 300 colour samples from the ship were analysed, and the results are fascinating: Vasa was a very colourful ship when she embarked on her maiden voyage in 1628. Most of the several hundred sculptures were painted in numerous strong colours, and some were gilded in gold leaf.
The part of the hull under the gunports was tarred, which gave it a red-brown tint. But a large part of Vasa was painted bright red: the upper parts of the ship's sides, the stern all the way at the back, and the bowsprit. The upper part of the gunwale was pale yellow. The battens and panels were often blue, yellow, or red.
Camouflage and melting into the background wasn't anything for Vasa. Instead the exact opposite applied: the ship would be impossible to miss. The word didn't exist in the Swedish language in the 1600s, but in a way Vasa was a gigantic billboard for Sweden and Gustav II Adolf.