It’s a cloudy late-April Saturday and I’m standing before the wrought facade of Rosslyn Chapel just south of Edinburgh. This is my second visit, but I still have difficulty believing it exists. I’ve yet to find a more wondrous and unsettling place.
Perhaps you read my recent Picture This about the green man of Rosslyn Chapel. It’s a good intro to the bizarre stone carvings inside the chapel and a taste of the history behind it. The chapel was built between 1446 and 1486 by Sir William St. Clair, the last St. Clair prince of Orkney. The St. Clairs (later and sometimes otherwise known as the Sinclairs) were a powerful Scottish family of Viking extraction, having arrived to Britain during the conquest of 1066. The St. Clair family was later invited to Scotland where they established their power and prosperity, and they even fought to retain Scottish independence alongside Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. What possessed Sir William to build Rosslyn Chapel?
In the 15th century, Britain was Roman Catholic and many collegiate chuches like Rosslyn Chapel were built to spread intellectual and spiritual knowledge. The patrons of these churches spared no expense in their design and construction, which turned out to be a good indicator of that person’s or family’s wealth. Judging by Rosslyn Chapel, the St. Clairs were loaded. Interestingly, what exists today is only a third of what Sir William had planned – it’s unknown why it wasn’t finished. And yet, even at its current size, it fights far, far above its weight.
The chapel was closed in the late 16th century due to the reformation and wasn’t reopened until 1862 when the Victorians took interest. The Victorians renovated the chapel, added carvings, made minor structural changes, and reopened the chapel for religious purposes. These days Rosslyn Chapel is no longer Roman Catholic, but a functioning place of worship for the wider Church of Scotland. Today, most people know about Rosslyn Chapel thanks to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which uses the chapel as an integral location in the hunt for the holy grail. Brown followed in the footsteps of a more famous 19th-century author: Sir Walter Scott wrote The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which first brought fame to Rosslyn.
On this visit I was sad to see the exterior of the chapel covered in preservation scaffolding and bounded by neon green fences – it was in the same state when I visited in 2006 – and was horrified to hear photography was no longer allowed inside the chapel. I managed to catch the ear of a manager and she kindly allowed me to take some surreptitious photos. The chapel was constructed in the Gothic style of architecture that gives it a foreboding, even menacing air. Gargoyles, spires, statues, and delicately-carved window arches are everywhere on the exterior.
The inside of Rosslyn Chapel is a marvel of stonemasonry. The arched stone ceiling, pillars, and walls have been carved into flora, fauna, and biblical scenes such that there are almost no smooth surfaces. Hundreds of daisies, lilies, roses, and stars cover the choir’s magnificent arched ceiling. Every support beam, pillar, and strut has been carved with floral or geometric embellishments. Fruits, vegetables, and other plants from around the world line the arched windows. Interestingly, there are carvings of maize, aloe vera, and trillium – plants from a new world that hadn’t yet been officially discovered. A story with firm grounding in fact has Sir William’s grandfather, Sir Henry St. Clair, sailing from the Orkney Islands to Nova Scotia and down the coast to Massachusetts more than 100 years before Columbus discovered America.
Green men, those pre-Christian pagan symbols of fertility and rebirth and being at one with nature, peek out from the carvings all over the chapel. More than 100 hide in the stone foliage amidst Biblical moral stories and scenes. It’s a confounding juxtaposition, though the early church did adopt many pagan symbols and practices. Angels peer from the neck and feet of pillars. One holds a casket with a heart, believed to be a symbol for Robert the Bruce. Another angel plays the bagpipes while yet another, Lucifer, is inverted and bound on his way to hell.
Of particular beauty is the Apprentice Pillar, a masterwork of stonemasonry. Vines from the mouths of eight dragons at the base wind their way around the pillar’s eight-foot height. The sophistication of the carvings is mindblowing – can anyone do this today? The carvings themselves could be an allusion to Scandinavian mythology, as the eight dragons of Niflheim are said to lie at the base of Yggdrasil, the world tree.
Around the chapel are 220 positions for statues, but all are empty. It’s said that there is a chamber beneath the chapel where 20 St. Clair knights are buried. Perhaps the statues for these positions lie there as well. When you add in the grail lore and the mystery of the chapel, this hidden chamber becomes extremely interesting. Unfortunately for the curious, the Earl of Rosslyn has forbidden any excavations.
Words do not easily convey the scope of beauty, mystery, and skill on display at Rosslyn Chapel. All the symbols and scenes might sound haphazardly arrayed, but there is certainly loads of symbolism and meaning, though much of it might now be lost. Perhaps the question I posed in the title of this post is irrelevant. Rosslyn Chapel is certainly both. Maybe that’s all the meaning we need.