Sunday, December 5, 2010

Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel - North Side
Something a bit different for this entry. I was going through one of many boxes of old photos that I have from my studies and travels and came upon a packet of prints from a visit to a truly amazing place - Rosslyn Chapel.
Having lived in St. Andrews, Scotland for a couple of years I had the opportunity to visit new and interesting sites all of the time, from Melrose and the Roman fort at Trimontium in the Scottish borders to Inverness and Eilean Donan castle and everything in between. It was something new every weekend. You can visit prehistoric sites, Pictish sites and Roman sites, of which there are many. I'll talk about the latter at another time. Finally, there is a wealth of medieval sites to visit and I have a few entries coming up on those.

Building materials for restoration work
One of the most interesting sites that I did visit was Rosslyn Chapel. I was fortunate enough to have done this in the pre-Da Vinci Code days of publishing after which, I am certain, hordes of eager tourists turned the quiet chapel into a virtual marketplace of symbology. I'm not trashing that as I'm sure the major influx of funds has helped Rosslyn Chapel's restoration along nicely. When I was there there was scaffold everywhere, along with piles of stone that were to be used in the work. But oh, what a place, and what a treat for me and my three friends to have it all to ourselves at the time. 

Rosslyn Chapel lies just south of Edinburgh and has been known as many things throughout its history - the Chapel of the Grail, a key to the secrets and treasures of the Templar Knights, the survivors of which were absorbed, some say, into the Masonic order. Certainly, many authors and historians have contributed to theories that go beyond the boundaries of conventional academia. And why not? It makes for fascinating fiction as well as some perfectly viable historical theories. A few book mentions later on.

North Aisle
Carving of Lucifer, the Fallen Angel
Rosslyn Chapel Chapel was founded in 1446 by Sir William St. Clair, the last St. Clair Prince of Orkney, who was buried in the chapel. It took some forty years to build what remains today and even that was not what was intended, for the original plan called for a larger structure. Evidence of this was found in an early excavation when the archaeologists discovered foundation walls that went well beyond the existing walls. Not everyone perceived Rosslyn as a sanctuary, a work of art or marvel of mysticism. Many, especially protestants, labelled Rosslyn as a house of idolatry, no doubt disconcerted by the images staring at them from every corner of the intensely ornate chapel.
Outer wall of St. Clair Castle
I will not go into the long history of Rosslyn Chapel here as this is more of a short pictorial tease, however, this place was not awarded the respect that was due to such a work of art. In 1650, during the Civil War when Oliver Cromwell's troops were besieging St. Clair Castle (only about 100 meters away), the English horses were stabled in the chapel. In 1688, pro-Protestant villagers from Roslin entered and damaged the chapel because it was "Popish and idolatrous". It was abandoned until 1736 when James St. Clair repaired the windows, roof and floors. If you have read a great deal about Rosslyn, the Templars and/or Masons, you will know that the name of St. Clair (or Sinclair) figures prominently. In April of 1862, the Rosslyn Chapel was rededicated as a place for worship and has undergone various stages of repair over the years, including when I visited in 2000. 

Carving detail
 It is, unfortunately, easy to get taken up with picture taking in such a place. I know that at first, I certainly did, but once I ran out of film I was able to sit quietly in that place and admire it for a while. I remember it being very quiet and there certainly was a feeling of constantly being watched (and not by CCTV cameras!). No, there was definitely a feeling to the place, unlike any other. Yes, you do have some of the usual religious iconography and stained glass but there is more of the unusual and mysterious. Questions certainly abound. For instance, the appearance of American vegetation such as aloe or Indian corn! There is a plethora of mythical creatures, dragons especially, of unusual angels such as the one playing the bag pipes, or another carrying the heart of Robert the Bruce (could it be the Black Douglas who was to take the Bruce's heart to Jerusalem?).

Angel carrying the heart of Robert the Bruce

The Apprentice Pillar
One of the most famous works in the chapel is the Apprentice Pillar. This twisted pillar, based with eight coiled dragons, is a true masterpiece and the story goes that when the master mason when away, his apprentice continued to work and created something that far surpassed that of the master. The master mason was so enraged with jealousy that he killed the apprentice with his mallet.
I think however, that the most striking thing for me was the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chapel. At one point, you look up and there above is an intricate pattern of alternating daisies, lilies, flowers, Roses and stars.

Ornamented Barrel-vaulted Ceiling
Numerous books have been written about this place, countless pictures published on-line but, there is no substitute for actually visiting it, interacting with it. Rosslyn has quite a story to tell, no matter what your perspective. You can gaze at it for hours and not see it all.
Here are a few recommended reads that touch on Rosslyn but also on the Templars and Masons. If fiction is your thing, check out Jack Whyte's Templar Trilogy in which the St. Clairs make an appearance. Oh, and why not check out Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code - it may not be literary fiction but it is highy entertaining and has caused millions of people to pick up a book and read who might not otherwise have done so. Besides, he fictionalizes some quite interesting theories put forward by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh as well as other alternative historian/detectives.

A couple of non-fiction recommendations that I have are Rosslyn, Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail by Tim Wallace-Murphy and Marilyn Hopkins and secondly, The Sword and the Grail by Andrew Sinclair. The latter is a very interesting exploration into the Templars and the possibility that they discovered North America more than ninety years before Columbus's journey of discovery. I know, it sounds mad but it is truly fascinating and besides, the Vikings discovered Newfoundland some five hundred or so years before Columbus! For you alternative history buffs out there, you'll already have made the link to the carvings of Indian corn and aloe on the walls or Rosslyn Chapel.
More to come in another few entries about some extraordinary sites in Scotland and other places. Hope you have enjoyed these shots of Rosslyn Chapel.

Angel with engrailed St. Clair cross

Knight with lance