On the 22nd of February in 2001, a Thursday, the late Pope Saint John Paul II addressed newly ordained cardinals during the Eucharistic Celebration on the Feast of Saint Peter’s Chair.
In his homily, he spoke on “the role of Peter and his Successors in steering the barque of the Church across this ‘ocean.'”
Why did JPII call the Church a barque, a type of sailing ship with three masts? The answer goes back to the earliest days of Church, when the founder of Western theology Tertullian referred to the Church as a ship in On Baptism.
“That little ship did present a figure of the Church, in that she is disquieted ‘in the sea,’ that is, in the world ‘by the waves,’ that is, by persecutions and temptations; the Lord, through patience, sleeping as it were, until, roused in their last extremities by the prayers of the saints, He checks the world, and restores tranquility to His own.”
In 195, Clement of Alexandria spoke of the ship being an official symbol for signet rings in his The Paedagogus.
“…let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water.”
In the late 4th century, the second book of Apostolic Constitutions speaks of the Church as a ship, with clergy manning it.
“When you call an assembly of the Church as one that is the commander of a great ship, appoint the assemblies to be made with all possible skill, charging the deacons as mariners to prepare places for the brethren as for passengers, with all due care and decency.”
By the Middle Ages, the symbolism of the Church being a ship steered by Peter the fisherman and his successors was firmly entrenched rooted in pious tradition.
In 1298 A.D., Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi commissioned Giotto di Bondone to paint a mosaic of the Barque of Saint Peter for Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, the most famous example of the theme in art: entitled Navicella, meaning little ship.