Ten years ago, if one visited the quaint village of Roslin, a short bus ride out to the outskirts of Edinburgh, one could tour the local chapel by simply inquiring with the caretaker to obtain a key and letting yourself in. In 2003, Dan Brown published the DaVinci Code, and everything changed.
Suddenly Roslin was swamped with tourists and Rosslyn Chapel was inundated with visitors eager to explore the same journey as those individuals in the book. However, it is important to note that much of the information in the book is historically inaccurate, particularly with reference to Rosslyn Chapel. The chapel’s actual story is far more interesting, though, and the building today still guards many secrets that have yet to be understood.
The chapel’s actual name is the Collegiate Chapel of Saint Matthew and was built in 1446. The building you see today is incomplete, as a further section was to be built in the now back side of the church which would have contained the actual chapel. The chapel as-is flourished despite continued friction between the Roman Catholics and the Reformation, until 1688 when a mob ambushed the chapel to destroy its furnishings. As most chapels in the area were burnt to the ground or demolished, it is one of the few that has survived relatively unscathed.
The church remained abandoned and empty until the beginning of the 19th century, when repairs were undertaken and the 3rd Earl of Roslin, James Alexander, decided to reopen the chapel for Sunday services. Minor repairs continued over the years and the chapel remained open, until a most grievous mistake was made.
In 1950 the decaying masonry was coated with magnesium fluoride, a concrete-like substance intended to keep the damp out of the stone and preserve it for future generations. Unfortunately, the coating had the opposite effect, not only masking the magnificent carvings but trapping dampness inside the stone, speeding the decay.
In 1997, a metal shell was erected outside the chapel to protect it from the harsh Scottish weather and allow the now fragile stonework to dry out. This is the state in which one will find the chapel today – certainly not as mesmerizing as in the text of the DaVinci Code, but the mystery surrounding this site is nonetheless marvelous.
The interior of the chapel has a number of features one should notice during the visit. The Apprentice Pillar, with its exquisite carvings, was done by an apprentice of the stonemason in charge of the chapel construction. It is rumored that when the stonemason found out the apprentice had finished this column without his consent, he killed him with a mallet, on the spot. Many of the arches contain “music boxes”, which some believe to be a secret code which has not been deciphered. There are also the Green Men who are found throughout the chapel; these men represent rebirth and fertility. Many carvings also appear to be images of maize; this is unusual as at the time of the chapel construction, corn was not a known crop in Europe. Lastly, at the very top of the chapel ceiling is the Great Rose Window. At noon, on the day of the summer and winter solstice, a ray of light strikes directly onto this piece of glass, bathing the entire chapel in a rose-colored light.
The most interesting feature of all, is not in the chapel itself, but in the vaults that lie underneath. These have been sealed, and the current Earl of Roslin, who owns the chapel and land, will not allow anyone to view their contents. The vaults may contain the bodies of the Knights of Templar, the Holy Grail, treasures or other priceless artifacts. Scans taken from above have been inconclusive, but reveal images of knights in armor below. What is truly there remains a secret that Rosslyn Chapel will continue to keep for her foreseeable future.
To reach Roslin, take Lothian bus 15A (not 15) from Saint Andrew’s Square; the bus drops passengers off a short 5-minute walk from the chapel. Ask the driver, if unsure, where to disembark. The trip is approximately 25 minutes in each direction.
Editor’s Note: As many historical facts of Rosslyn Chapel have been disputed, the information displayed here is courtesy of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust .