Why do you find Indian corn chiseled in the stonework of a medieval church window frame? And why is there a kangaroo in the stain glass window? And how come this little church has gained worldwide notoriety among fans of American thriller novels?
Rosslyn Chapel is a church that plays in its own league. Located in the little village of Rosslin in Scotland, it is one of the most fascinating medieval buildings in the world, full of character, eccentricity, and symbolism. You will be hard pressed to find a church building with similar appeal anywhere in the Christian world.
So this is why we decided to come to Rosslin, bypassing Edinburgh this way and checking out this tiny chapel which has provoked so much speculation about its symbolism that Dan Brown was inspired to have his book “The Da Vinci Code”’s finale set here.
Whether you are drawn by the novel or intrigued by the intricate masonry or want to get a chance to interpret the images in the chapel yourself, there are many reasons why you should add Rosslyn Chapel to your Scotland itinerary.
For us, it was the last stop on our Scottish road trip. Rosslyn Chapel had been one of my personal must-dos for our trip, one of the wonders of mankind that I wanted to see with my own eyes. I knew that photography inside the chapel was not permitted, but I had to visit anyway, not just for the blog but to take it all in with my eyes.
Rosslyn Chapel is in private ownership of the St Clair family who are the Earls of Rosslyn and founders of the chapel. It was founded in 1446 as the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew – a church built by laymen with the intention to spread intellectual and spiritual knowledge. This probably explains the elaborate decorations inside and outside of the building, as each single decorative piece comes with a story or a morale.
Looking at Rosslyn Chapel from the outside, it is not exactly one of the most beautiful churches in the world. In fact, I believe it looks strangely malformed and out of whack. Even though it contains all the traditional elements of its time – Gothic in style – like buttresses and pointed windows, these elements do not seem to colaborate well together, making Rosslyn Chapel look rather stocky. A change of the original plans must have resulted in a much smaller construction than originally intended.
In contrast to many other church buildings in Britain, Rosslyn Chapel survived the age of Reformation largely unscathed. One can assume that many items have been lost during those turbulent and violent years (the church at one point served as a horse stable, so go figure), but on the inside the stonemasonry is still so clearly visible that you can spend ages just wandering around and looking at the artwork.
And this is what most people will actually do when they visit Rosslyn Chapel. Either with a guide or with a book in their hand they wander among the pillars, inspect the elaborate ceilings which are completely covered in stars and flowers, marvel at the pretty stained windows.
There is a lot to see here, far more than in an ordinary British church, because Anglican churches tend to be void of any ornament or decoration. In my view, they are rather dull and boring.
Rosslyn Chapel on the other hand has carvings on every pillar, on their bases and their capitals. Each single statue holder is graced with a face or an animal. There are tombstones to see, as well as richly carved stone pendants hanging off the ceiling.
Each one of them tells a story. Christ’s birth and crucification, the seven deadly sins, the Virgin Mary, the dance of death. There are plant ornaments that depict plants common in the region such as curly kale, flowers and fern. There are angels, hundreds of them, holding scrolls. Fallen angels. Gargoyles. Dragons and unicorns, even a camel. There are common people, the master of masonry and his apprentice, members of the family St Clair. Pagan symbols of Celtic origin.
There are symbols of freemasonry all over the church, as well as the cross of the St Clair’s.
When you think about it, it’s no surprise that there is so much detail in this chapel. Constructed as a house to educate the people in times when most of them were illiterate, these pictures were useful in teaching the congregation the word of God, the story of the saints and of course the life of Jesus Christ.
So why is it that you will also see some unusual images in the Rosslyn Chapel? One stained window for example shows St Francis talking to several different animals, one of them being a kangaroo. The other window shows an air-rifle man. How can that be? Medieval people most certainly didn’t know of any of these things, right? The answer is simple. The windows may have an antique look to them but they are in fact modern.
Rosslyn Chapel’s original windows have been long lost, and the newer windows show objects that are close to the family’s heart. The kangaroo, for example, is in remembrance of an ancestor’s birthplace in Australia – Sheila Chisholm, the current Earl of Rosslyn’s grandmother. Ms Chisholm, later a Russian princess by marriage, had been a beautiful socialite who had come from Sydney to London to mix with royalty and noblemen. Her illustrious personality alone is worth a closer look and has already been covered in biographies and newspaper articles.
The sacristy is a small underground room next to the Lady Chapel on the eastern side of the building. The room is strikingly free of ornament, but what I found very fascinating were the masonry drawings on the naked walls which must have been drawn onto the stone during the construction of the chapel. There is also a heart-shaped mason’s mark clearly visible.
After our visit to the chapel we walked around the eastern side of the building and followed the trails that lead into the surrounding countryside. We witnessed a group of people praying in close vicinity to the church under the bright blue sky – yet another indicator of how much attraction Rosslyn Chapel has to all kinds of people.
The path that we followed south is clearly visible but we needed to be careful not to brush against nettles. We had been told that there was more to see near the Rosslyn Chapel than just the chapel itself. After just a couple of minutes we found what we had been looking for: the castle ruin of the St Clair family. Not much is left of the castle, and the only building still standing is now used as a guest house. But the old stonework of the ruin in the Scottish countryside as well as the curved bridge that we crossed as we approached the castle still had their own appeal.
Remember how I mentioned that there was Indian corn immortalised in the Rosslyn Chapel? I almost forgot to explain the reason behind it. In contrast to the stained glass windows, the stonework is of course original and medieval, so how is it possible that the stonemasons knew how a plant from the New World would look like?
There is a theory that Prince Henry, the 1st Prince of Orkney, one of the St Clair ancestors had once been onboard a Venetian ship and that he managed to sail all the way to Massachusetts 200 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in America. There are a couple of reasons why this story might have some truth to it.
First of all, the local Micmac Indians know of stories that could be interpreted as a cultural exchange that may indeed have happened at that time. Secondly, there is a line carving in a stone in Massachusetts that closely resembles a medieval knight that might possibly depict a companion of Prince Henry, identifiable by the shield which resembles the shield of the Gunn of Clyth family. Lastly, there are these Indian corncobs in the chapel that look so close to the original it is really hard to explain it away.
Intrigued? A visit to Rosslyn Chapel is indeed a wondrous experience. I do recommend that you come prepared and study a bit the different details and learn what to look out for before you visit the chapel. Otherwise many details will be lost on you. You can do that on the internet or by spending some time in the adjoining visitor centre where a lot of information is provided free of charge.
Alternatively, book a guided tour or purchase one of the excellent guide books that are available at the entrance. The latter will take you on a tour as well if you follow the step by step instructions. It is clearly explained but not going into too much detail. It might be a small church but do allow at least 1.5 hours for your visit and make sure you walk around at least twice.