One of the earliest symbols that has been used to symbolize the Church is that of a ship or boat. It is symbolic of the Church being battered by the world’s lack of faith and persecution. There are Biblical passages that support this symbolism.
In the Old Testament (Genesis 6-9) Noah and his family were saved from the waters of the flood by the ark that God had told him to build.
In the New Testament (1 Peter 3:20-22) the waters of the flood are compared to baptism, by which all are saved by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 8, Jesus calms the sea which threatens to drown the Apostles who are in the boat with him.
Again in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 14, Jesus comes to the Apostles, who are in the boat which is being tossed by the wind, by walking on the water.
The ship appears throughout Christian history as a symbol of the Church in art and architecture from as early as the second century. Some examples of this can be found on the next page.
— Fr. Thomas Lamping