«He builded better than he knew:-
the conscious stone to beauty grew.»
R.W. Emerson, The Problem
Midlothian has many hearts. One of them is the pattern that can be seen next to the High Kirk in Edinburgh, of which I talked last week along with the infamous story behind its lovely shape. There is another one, though, carved in stone, whose beauty still astonishes the visitors, and that has been made famous around the world thanks to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: the Rosslyn Chapel.
At first, one may feel unimpressed when visiting Roslin, a village located only 7 miles to the South of Edinburgh. But this town is only the beginning of a journey toward a mysterious place that makes every heart race with emotions, from suspense to amazement, at the sight of this gothic gem, located in the midst of the forest.
Rosslyn Chapel (or the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew, strictly speaking) was founded in 1446 by William Sinclair, 1st Earl Of Caithness. The original purpose of this church was to celebrate the Divine Office throughout the day and night for the deceased people, specially those from the powerful Sinclair family.
The Sinclairs are a Highlands Scottish clan of Norman origins: they originally came from St Clare, in Normandy. In 1068 they got the Barony of Roslin. Nowadays, Peter St Clair-Erskine, 7th Earl of Roslin, owns the chapel.
The chapel was ruined and abandoned in 1592. By the nineteenth century, the stained glasses were completely shattered. Rain poured from the outside and caused a high level of humidity, thus cloaking the church with centuries-old green moss. This singular vision sparkled the interest of painters and poets of the Romantic era. Wordsworth had to find shelter from a storm there, and immortalized the chapel in the poem Composed at Roslin Chapel during a Storm.
We must thank Queen Victoria for her decision in restoring the chapel, as she considered it to be a national treasure, so now we can admire it with all its old splendour.
But, besides historical facts, what makes the Rosslyn Chapel so special? Its carved stones. In the Middle Ages, most people were illiterate, so it was necessary to find a way to educate them in Christian teachings. Thus, churches were designed as “Bibles in stone”, and therefore filled with images of saints, the Holy Family, the Seven Mortal Sins and moral lessons about lust and anger.
Rosslyn is a perfect example of this tradition, and one can see a lot of mythological animals covering the façade. But it is the interior of the chapel what takes our breaths away.
Magnificently carved in stone, we can find a Fallen Angel, a dragon, a king and even a Danse Macabre scene that reminds us that, even if we can create such beatiful buildings, we are all going to die one day.
One of the most captivating sights is the Apprentice Pillar. The legend says it was carved by a young mason, after being inspired by a dream. His master, who had to travel in order to learn how to create it, became enraged when he saw what is apprentice had accomplished by himself. In a fit of jealousy, he killed the young mason with his mallet.
At the bottom of this pillar we can see several Ouroboros, serpents who eat its own tail and that represent the idea of eternal return.
But, among all this Christian symbols and teachings, we find an enigmatic figure. Who is this character, represented by a face surrounded by leaves, that has been carved no less that 120 times in Rosslyn Chapel? It is known as the Green Man, a pagan symbol of fertility and rebirth.
These faces are not the only green men we can find in Roslin. There are also testimonies of UFO sightings at Roslin Glen, a wooded glen located near the chapel.
Copyright: The Rosslyn Templars. http://www.rosslyntemplars.co.uk
Another amazing story is related to the maize corn that is supposedly carved inside Rosslyn Chapel. Given the fact that Columbus reached the New World (where maize is originally from) many years after this church was constructed, many scholars have proposed a curious theory about it. Since the chiefs of the Sinclair family were also Earls of Orkney, their members could have had the key to travel to America as the Vikings did, many centuries ago. Interestigly enough, the Earls of Orkney were subjects to the Kings of Norway.
And last but not least, we cannot forget Dan Brown´s The Da Vinci Code. Rosslyn Chapel was the place where the Holy Grail was hidden. Needless to say, the book became a bestseller and increased the number of tourists who came to the church in search of this mythical object.
Perhaps in the old days, although illiterate, people knew how to read all the stones and were able to unveil the mystery that surrounds Rosslyn Chapel. As for myself, a humble visitor, I can only gaze at this monument with wonder, in the hope that one day we can finally understand the secret of the carved figures.
Meanwhile, we have to let William, the guardian cat who lives there, deal with these little green men.