Located on a hill above the Roslin Glen rests a stone puzzle, a medieval stone book of esoteric knowledge, known as Rosslyn Chapel. This building has always been a mystery and in recent years has been used in such works like "The DaVinci Code" which perpetuates theories that tie the Knights Templar and Freemasonry together. While there are many impressive structures of antiquity in Scotland, I consider Rosslyn Chapel to the finest example of architecture in the region. This building is unique though because so much of its surface is carved in some kind of carving and gives incite to the life and how religion played a part during the Middle Ages, something that seems obvious, but also lost on so many today. In traversing the chapel one can see the story of Adam & Eve, their expulsion from Eden, Isaac's sacrifice, the Birth of Christ, the Conception, the Birth of Christ, the Resurrection and Ascension, and several more.
Its official name is the Collegiate Chapel of Saint Matthew and was constructed by the Sinclair family; you will see the use of Sainteclaire, Saintclair, or Saint Clair when talking about the Sinclair family. The building was commenced on St. Matthew's Day, September 21st, 1446, by William Sinclair, 3rd Prince of Orkney and 1st Earl of Caithness, but some argue that 1446 was only the year that its construction was sanctioned by the Holy See in Rome while the ground wasn't broken until September 1456. The Sinclair family was a noble family was descended from Norman knights from the commune of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in northern France. William wished to build this college to celebrate the Divine Office throughout the day and night, spread spiritual and intellectual knowledge, and celebrate Holy Mass of the departed. In 1450, the chapel was dedicated as the "Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew." An endowment was established in perpetuity to pay for the maintenance upkeep, the pay for the priests, and their parochial duties. In 1484 William died and was buried in the chapel. The original plans for the chapel have never been found so it is not known whether or not that the chapel, in its current status, was the intention of William Sinclair.
After the Reformation of the 16th century, Catholic worship in the chapel ceased although the Sinclair family continued to be Catholics until the early 1700s; during the Reformation the altars of the Chapel were destroyed. Rosslyn Chapel was closed to public worship until 1861, but was a place of worship according to the rites of Scottish Episcopal Church.
The style of Rosslyn Chapel is Gothic by its use of flying buttresses, pointed arches, and ribbed vaults. This style of architecture originated in France around the 12th century and was primarily used with churches and cathedrals, but was seen in the building of castles, palaces, town halls, guild halls, and universities. This style allowed the buildings of the time to be built higher and draw the viewer's eye up to the Heavens. Like other religious buildings Rosslyn Chapel was supposed to be built in the shape of a Latin cross or cruciform, but was never completed. The foundations of a nave and transepts, neither one built, stretching out 90-feet and were thought to be abandoned after the death of William Sinclair. The chapel is 40-feet 8-inches high, 34-feet 8-inches wide, and 68-feet long.
The chapel is supported by 14 pillars that form an arcade of twelve pointed arches on three sides of the nave. The 3 pillars on the east side of the chapel are named, from north to south: Master Pillar, Journeyman Pillar, and the Apprentice Pillar. This wasn't always the names given to them, originally they were said to be called the Earl's Pillar, the Shekinah, and the Prince's Pillar. On the three pillars standing between the east aisle and the east chapel is a choir of thirteen angels with musical instruments, representing the host of God. Along with these famous pillars, you will also see a crypt and a multitude of carvings including Magical or Musical Cubes, Green Men, Ears of Corn, Seven Deadly Sins, Dance of Death, Knight on Horseback, and several more.
One of the most famous and beautiful pieces of architecture is today known as the Apprentice Pillar. The story behind the name of this pillar has some variations, but often goes as follows:
The Master was given a model by the patron, but the Master needed to go to Rome to see the original pillar that was said to have inspired the model's design. While he is gone his Apprentice has a dream where he sees the pillar's design. He constructs the pillar and when the Master returns sees that the Apprentice and has done his work whereupon he flies into a rage and kills the Apprentice by striking him upon the head with a mallet. As a reminder of this legend, the Master's face is carved in the corner opposite the pillar and is forced to gaze upon the Apprentice's Pillar for all time.
On the main beam resting across the top of the column there is found an inscription "Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas" that translates into "Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all" which comes from 1 Esdras 3 & 4. The legend of this pillar has correlation with the Hiramic legend found in the ceremonies of the Symbolic or Blue Lodge. Some have hypothesized that with the Norman roots of the Sinclair family and the carvings around the top and base, that the Apprentice Pillar represents a root of the Yggdrasil tree, a cosmic tree that unites the worlds within Norse mythology.
Around the Chapel are found 213 cubes, or boxes, that protrude from pillars and arches with a variety of patterns of lines and dots etched into them. Some have endeavored to find meaning in them. There is a geometric pattern by those who study cymatics, or the study of visible sound and vibration, but no interpretation has been found yet. The father-and-son team of Thomas and Stuart Mitchell produced a tune which Stuart calls the Rosslyn Motet.
Another feature of the Chapel is the existence of "Green Men." The Green Men are carvings of human faces with greenery all around them, often growing out of their mouths. These are seen as pre-Christian in origin and symbolize the power of nature, fertility, and rebirth. There are more than 110 Green Men scattered all around the Chapel. Some believe that the vines sprouting from the mouth could symbolize the connection between nature and the human race.
One carving that has sparked theories of pre-Columbian visits to America by the Sinclair family is the appearance of ears of corn. Corn or maize was unknown in Europe at the time the Chapel was constructed and would not be cultivated there for centuries. Some scholars though state that these carvings are not corn but rather stylized depictions of wheat and/or lilies.
On the south aisle, there is a pair of lintels that represent the Seven Heavenly Virtues and the Seven Deadly Sins. Each depicts moral lessons which were often used throughout Middle Ages to teach good conduct among the faithful. One anomaly one will find is that Greed is depicted among the virtues and Charity is shown among the Sins.
The Angel holding the heart is thought to represent Robert I or more commonly known as Robert the Bruce, who was King of Scots from 1306 until his death in 1329, and who is known for his leadership in the Wars for Scottish Independence. Sir Henry Sinclair and his brother William fought on the side of Robert in the famous Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. At Robert's death, two of Henry's sons were chosen to escort his heart to Jerusalem. The sons died in their attempts, but the heart is likely to represent the strong bond between the two families.
As a representation of the continual presence and power of death, there are carvings of people from all walks of life accompanied by a skeleton, by Death. This is meant to demonstrate the common doom of man, that no matter our station in life, we all will shed this mortal shell and succumb to the inevitable triumph of death.
Some believe that this knight represents William "the Seemly" Sinclair who was the first of his family to move to Scotland. William, according to legend, escorted Queen Margaret to Scotland. Queen Margaret was from Hungary and she would marry the first king of Scotland. For being the Queen's escort he was given barony of Rosslyn.
Hanging from the middle of the Lady Chapel is a carving of an 8-pointed star. The outer edge of this carving has a figure that depicts a part of the story of the birth of Christ: Virgin and child, the manger, the 3 Magi, and the 3 shepherds. A Lady Chapel is a smaller chapel inside a cathedral or church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
There are many carvings of angels with musical instruments in the Lady Chapel, but one of them is playing a set of bagpipes. The history of the bagpipes goes back for centuries, but mention of them being in the British Isles doesn't occur until the end of the 14th century with the publication of The Canterbury Tales and specifically in Scotland around the mid-1400's so this carving could be one of the earliest depictions of them. These angels are playing music to celebrate the birth of Christ.
The ceiling is composed of 5 sections on which flowers such as daisies, lilies, roses, simple flower designs, and astrological bodies are depicted. These flower designs further continue to show a theme of nature that permeates the entire structure. The use of lilies and roses is also used to represent Christ and the Virgin Mary. Also on the roof can be found the carvings of stars, but among the stars there is a sun, a moon, and an image of Christ with his hand raised in blessing.
Repairs to Rosslyn Chapel are sparse and dots its history. It was in the late 1990's that it was recognized that the chapel was in serious need of repair. Rosslyn Chapel has existed over 550-years, a tribute to the skill of the stonemasons, but all of these years it has been exposed to Scottish weather which has left the interior damp which has led to a deterioration of the impressive work. In 1995 the Chapel Trust was formed who started an extensive conservation program whose works included the roof, the stone, the carvings, the stained glass windows, and the organ. In 1997, a steel canopy was erected to prevent further rain damage to the church and also give it a chance to dry out properly; this was taken down in 2011, when the major stonework repairs were completed. Along with the needed works, the Trust was able to have new lighting and heating installed along with a visitor center constructed. The costs to complete the restoration were around £13-million.
Some interesting things caught my eye while reading about the restoration program. The first is that during renovations of the rooftop pinnacle a beehive was found in a hidden chamber. The hive has been abandoned and sent to a local bee keeper for identification. The second is that three human skeletons were also found under a stone slab in the central aisle while work was done to install a new heating system. Some believe that locals who wanted to bury their relatives on consecrated laid these bodies under the slab during the Reformation when the chapel was abandoned.
Made famous by The DaVinci Code, the Rosslyn Chapel is tied to the Knights Templar. The Chapel was built around 150-years after the dissolution of the Templar Order, but many point to the carvings of two men astride a horse, an image tied to the Knights Templar, as evidence of Templar influence. There is a variety of Templar continuation myths, several of them concern the Templars hiding away in Scotland during the suppression of their order. There is little concrete evidence to support such a theory and in 2006 Robert Cooper, Curator of the Museum and Library of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, wrote the Rosslyn Hoax which dispels many of the myths concerning the Rosslyn Chapel, Freemasonry, and Knights Templar. Adding to the mystery of Rosslyn Chapel is the presence of a massive underground vault, or crypt, that was sealed off in 1690. This vault was accessible by a staircase in the rear of the chapel and was used as a burial place for many generations of Sinclairs. There are theories that the crypt contains the Holy Grail, the head of Christ, Holy Scrolls, the One True Cross, the Templar treasures, and the original crown jewels of Scotland.
This chapel is an amazing piece of impressive architecture. Although it is only theory, it has many aspects that appear to be Masonic, but this may be more due to our connection to operative Masonry as well as the influence of Biblical verses on both, the chapel and Freemasonry.
1. Blaskin, S. (2006, March 13). Episode 19 - Rosslyn Chapel. The Digital Freemason Podcast.
2. Millar, A. H. (n.d.). Carvings. Retrieved from Electric Scotland: http://www.electricscotland.com/history/castles/04Carvings.pdf
3. Recent Work at Rosslyn Chapel. (2011, December 04). Retrieved from AOC Archaeology Group: http://www.aocarchaeology.com/news/recent-work-at-rosslyn-chapel
5. Rosslyn Chapel. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosslyn_Chapel
7. Sigler, C. (2007, August). Scotland - Rosslyn Chapel. The Working Tools magazine, 27-29.