Monday, 31 August 2009

Rosslyn Chapel

Having returned recently from my summer holiday in Scotland I thought I would blog about some of the more ‘unusual’ things we did whilst there.

On the way to Edinburgh we paid a visit (£7.50 for adults!) to Rosslyn chapel. I had first come across Rosslyn at a lecture given by Gorden Rutter and Scott Russell at a Fortean Unconvention and then later through Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci code. I had expected a few carvings but was blown away by the place. The building itself is redolent with history; even the name Rosslyn is perhaps significant. According to research conducted by Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight for The Hiram Key (1997), the word can be broken into its two syllables, 'Ros' and 'Lyn' which have their roots in the Gaelic 'Ros', meaning ancient knowledge and 'Lyn', meaning down the ages. It can therefore be argued that even the name of the place is telling us what it is: a library carved in stone ciphers; an attempt to impart arcane knowledge in something more durable than paper – knowledge available only to those with the intellect to decode it. . Rather, the building was designed and left for posterity as a learning tool, a coded book constructed in the most durable medium available – stone.

Rosslyn Chapel is still a working church (the Collegiate Church of St Matthew) but it is also something much more than that, to me it seemed to be a pantheistic temple which was later called a church in order to secure it’s survival, I have never seen a Christian church so covered with pagan symbols, images of Lucifer, dragons, plants, fields of flowers, sins and death. The carvings cover every inch of the small chapel and trains of intricate patterns and a large number of splayed crosses mark this place as an important meeting place of the Knights Templar. The splayed cross is also part of the Sinclair family’s insignia.

William St Claire commenced the building of the chapel in 1442. It took around 40 years to build and was still not totally complete when he died. His family line has remained intact since and the St Claire’s still own the chapel today. The family are traditional Grand Masters of the Masons of Scotland since the charter was granted to Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn in 1630. There a many references to freemasonry in the church and its history.

The unfortunate attempts at restoration in the 1960’s have left the stone a dulled colour – covered as it is in a cement wash. The original yellow and pink sandstone would have been much more beautiful and luckily in a few places you can see the original colours. It is also interesting to note that the religious stained glass windows, Virgin Mary statue above the first altar and font at the back were late Victorian additions. The original chapel had clear windows and no overarching Christian regalia.

Theories about the importance and hidden treasure of Rosslyn Chapel are plentiful and popular, especially since the publication of The Da Vinci Code, it is frequently claimed that there is a great and profound secret hidden in Rosslyn Chapel, a secret that has so far remained tantalisingly elusive. But if there is a secret, what kind of secret is it? Is it the contents of the Templar preceptories, hastily removed from France immediately prior to the order’s arrest and imprisonment in October 1309? Or is it the lost gospels of Christ appropriated from beneath Solomon’s Temple by the Knights Templar during their lengthy sojourn in the Holy Lands? Another school of thought argues that the Holy Grail itself lies hidden beneath the floor of this mediæval / Renaissance chapel. Yet others are sure that Rosslyn’s secret treasure is the Ark of the Covenant, and there are even those who hold that the mummified head of Christ (or alternatively John the Baptist) is hidden there but what it is, and whether it has any relevance in the 21st century, is the vexed question lying at the puzzle’s very core.

Some things you will see if you visit the chapel include:

The Green Man: a pagan figure representing fertility. He has vines growing out of his mouth and around his face and there are over 100 carvings of him in the Church. The guide told us this is a very unusual thing to find in a Scottish Church.

Lucifer: an upside-down angel wrapped in rope and representing the fallen angel sent to hell.

Robert the Bruce: the face of Robert the Bruce is carved into the easternmost part of the Church. He looks pretty squished-in despite his importance in history. He was related to the St Claire family.

Carvings of American plants which predate Columbus’ “discovery” of America: The Chapel was finished just after 1484. Columbus landed in America in 1492. The exotic plants featured in the chapel include corn (maize), aloe vera and a third plant with a latin name which I can’t remember. I was sceptical about the explanation given by the guide that the St Claire’s who built the chapel were descended from Vikings and may have landed in America before Columbus had seen the plants. A much more simple explanation is that these carvings were added later. The masonry is certainly uneven on particular parts and looks as though it may have been cut out and put back in.

The Nativity: Figures from the nativity on top of an eight pointed star – the “star of Bethlehem” according to the guide books. Apparently the star of David (six-pointed) does not appear anywhere in the Church and had to be added by the filmmakers of “The Da Vinci Code”.

The Musical Boxes: 213 boxes carved on the edges of ribs around the vaulted pillars. Each one has a carving but the carvings do not follow an obvious pattern along the ribs. One theory is that each box represents a musical note and a Father/Son team of musicologists spent years trying to crack the code. They developed a scheme of tapping a tuning fork on a metal sheet covered in sand. The sand would then allegedly form a pattern which matched the carvings telling you which note to play. The legend goes that if the music of Rosslyn Chapel is ever played in the chapel, then the chapel will reveal its secrets. The Rosslyn Motet has been performed in the chapel three times and nothing has happened.

The Dance of Death: people from all strata of society being pulled into the next world by Death, depicted as a skeleton.

The Apprentice Pillar: the most elaborately decorated pillar in the Church was alleged to have been carved while the master mason was on a research break in Rome. His apprentice had a dream and completed the pillar in his masters’ absence. Upon his return, the master flew into a jealous rage and struck the apprentice with a mallet, killing him. The master was said to have been hung for his crime and the faces of the apprentice, apprentice’s mother and the master are said to be the faces at the back of the Church. It appears there may be more to this simplistic story.

There is a lot of symbolism around the chapel and I would love to know what it all means.

According to the guide, a plumbline from the keystone points to a stone in the floor which covers the treasure of Rosslyn. He says that the St Claire family won’t let anyone lift up the stones because their ancestors are likely to be buried underneath. Many of the important floor stones are covered with red carpet.

The guide said that the owners had allowing a sonar scan of the central Church which revealed a honeycomb-like structure and informed us that there is as much space below the Church as there is in it. We then visited the small crypt at one end of the church. The crypt seemed to be some sort of meeting room (for freemasons?) and would make a great entrance hall for the underground chambers of the Church, as it is so much lower down. The Church being built on a hill, the crypt has a window to the sunlight but backs onto the lower bowels of the chapel.

Rosslyn Chapel is well worth a visit. It is £7.50 for adults and is just off the A701 between Penicuik and Edinburgh. The chapel is currently covered with a tin roof while roofing restoration takes place. This work should be completed by summer 2010 if you want to wait to see the building in its full glory.

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