On a small, rocky plateau overlooking a deep tree lined glen, lies a modest Scottish chapel that has captured the imagination of millions of people around the world. Rosslyn Chapel, measuring only 68 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 42 feet high, has enough fascinating myths, legends and mysteries to put a major Cathedral to shame.
Despite popular belief that Dan Brown’s book, The DaVinci Code, put Rosslyn Chapel on the tourist map, it had been visited frequently since 1800 by many romance poets, writers, painters, and even Queen Victoria. Brown’s book, however, rocketed the chapel to super star status on the tourist and new age circuit, with visitors increasing from 35,000 in 2003, when the DaVinci Code was published, to over 175,000 in 2009.
Only 7 miles and a 25-minute bus ride from downtown Edinburgh, Rosslyn Chapel is a short walk from the small stone buildings of Roslin village. The 600 year-old Gothic chapel is a spectacular sight, with multi-hued sandstone block walls decorated with menacing gargoyles, intricately carved window arches, and several rows of Goth towers with pointed spires interspersed along its walls.
Inside the chapel, the astonishing sight of thousands of carvings and sculptures that festoon the stone walls, arches, and ceiling is bewildering and captivating. Graphic images of angels, knights, faces, flowers, stars, dragons, pagan motifs, and religious allegories—each an individual work of art—are everywhere. One can only marvel at the team of French masons and craftsmen who carved this Arcanum, this book etched in stone, under the direction of the Chapel’s creator, Prince William Sinclair.
When William Sinclair, First Earl of Caithness, contemplated his mortality in 1446, he ordered the building of “a house of most curious work, that it might be done with greater glory and splendor”, in which he was to be interred upon his death. Thus was Rosslyn Chapel built—and the results exceeded all expectations.
Indeed, the carvings conceal many mysteries. Crafted by a small army of masons, every symbol has a meaning, from the green man who glares malevolently down at visitors, ivy sprouting from his mouth, to the Apprentice Pillar named after an 18th century legend where a master mason killed his apprentice in a fit of jealousy when the youngster wrought a magnificent column while the master was away.
Many other legends abound about ancient religious connections with Rosslyn Chapel, but unfortunately, most of them are unfounded. Some sources (including The DaVinci Code) claim that the Knights Templar built Rosslyn Chapel. This is highly unlikely, as the Knights Templar had been wiped out 139 years before the chapel was started, although Sinclair was clearly aware of the Templars, as several of the chapel’s carvings would indicate.
Some believe that the Holy Grail is hidden somewhere within the chapel, but this is mere speculation, the only connection being that Henry St Clair likely participated in the attack of the Dome of the Rock, in 1098, where it is thought that the Grail was kept. The claim that the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was passed on to the Sinclairs via the Merovingian-Frankish and Carolingian dynasties of Europe is likewise based upon so many frailties and inventive interpretation that it too is unlikely to have any merit.
A chamber deep beneath Rosslyn Chapel containing the remains of former barons of Rosslyn is documented in Theatrum Scotiae, published in the 17th century by John Slezer, Surveyor of Their Majesties Stores and Magazines in the Kingdom of Scotland. He writes that nine barons of Rosslyn and three princes of Orkney are encased in lead-lined caskets beneath the chapel. Modern technology does show that there are underground vaults beneath the chapel, parallel with and below the small sacristy reached by descending stairs at the end of the Lady Chapel.
Another mystery that has baffled archeologists and historians is the array of carvings of Indian corn over the arch of a window in the chapel’s south aisle. This plant was unknown in England and Scotland before Christopher Columbus’s voyage of discovery to the Americas, which took place 20 years after the chapel was completed. How then, did corn come to be carved into the lintels at Rosslyn Chapel before Columbus “discovered” it in the new world?
The answer might lie with anecdotal and physical evidence of a Venetian explorer named Antonio Zeno, who led a voyage across the North Atlantic in 1398, accompanied by Prince Henry Sinclair and a fellow Scotsman from the Clan Gunn from Caithness. At a tributary of the Merrimack River, close to Westford, Massachusetts, they, or a contemporary Native American, carved a figure of a knight holding a shield and sword into a large rock. The sword is of the type worn during the late 1300’s, and the heraldic emblem on the shield has been identified as that of the Clan Gunn. This evidence, coupled with Mik’maq Indian legends of white gods arriving from the sea on floating islands, plus an ancient multi ringed Venetian cannon or bombast that was dredged up from the Louisburg Harbor in 1849, supply plenty of evidence of this voyage.
Whether any of the myths and legends that derive from Rosslyn Chapel are true or not, they have created an aura of mystery, romance, and of course, outrageous exploitation. Regardless of any factual truths and fables associated with Rosslyn there is something about the chapel, an otherworldly sensation that seems to emanate from its very stones and pillars.
Written by and photos by Roy Stevenson for EuropeUpClose.com