The Rosslyn Chapel Carvings: Facts, Mysteries, and Conspiracies
The exquisite carvings of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland are among the best in Europe and portray scenes not found in any other 15th century chapel. Much of the mystery and intrigue surrounding this site is connected with the unique carvings.
Rosslyn Chapel (officially known as the Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew) was a Roman Catholic chapel (it now belongs to the Scottish Episcopal Church) in Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland. Founded in the 15th century by William Sinclair, 1st Earl of the Caithness of the Scoto-Norman Sinclair family, the chapel took about 40 years to complete, perhaps due to the plethora of ornate stone carvings that can be seen adorning the walls throughout the chapel. The amazing stories of the chapel and its features have inspired thousands of visitors to discover what its really like to experience the famous site filled with history, mystery, and silver screen intrigue, for themselves.
Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland. (Pixabay License)
Are there New World Symbols in the Rosslyn Chapel Carvings?
It is perhaps the symbolism of these intricate carvings that has contributed to some of the mystery surrounding Rosslyn Chapel. For instance, some carvings in the chapel are thought to represent the American Cactus and Indian Sweetcorn, which are plants found in the New World. Knowledge of these plants would have been impossible, since America was only ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus about 50 years after Rosslyn Chapel was built.
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To explain this anomaly, it has been suggested that these plants signified a connection with the Knights Templar and that they ‘secretly’ discovered America before Columbus. This fanciful claim, however, has been countered by the argument that these ‘American plants’ were actually common motifs in medieval art and that not as unique as commonly made out to be.
Maize carvings around the window. (Rosslyn Chapel)
Freemason Symbols and the Holy Grail ‘Secret’
Continuing with the subject of the Templars, William Sinclair is believed by some to have been involved with this Order or that he was a Freemason. However, Rosslyn Chapel was built about a century and a half after the dissolution of the Templar order and Freemasonry had not yet existed during the time of William Sinclair.
Nevertheless, William Sinclair’s supposed association with the Knights Templar has allowed various stories to be produced about Rosslyn Chapel. The most famous story, perhaps, is that of the Holy Grail being hidden in this chapel after the Templars fled from France to Scotland.
This claim is supported by the so-called Freemason symbols in the stone carvings, and is popularized by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Yet, the idea that Rosslyn Chapel was intended to be the repository of the Holy Grail is highly unlikely, as it was actually built so that Mass could be said for the souls of the Sinclair family. Yet, for many, I suspect, the Holy Grail story seems much more appealing.
Conspiracies and Non-Christian Symbology in Rosslyn Chapel
Perhaps this story is so appealing due to its engagement with the distrust that some (or many) of us have for the ‘establishment’. In this case, it is the Roman Catholic Church. And so Rosslyn Chapel has been transformed into a bastion for the ‘anti-establishment movement’.
One wonders though, whether such things are being over-interpreted and that monsters and phantoms are being conjured up by our minds where they do not exist. Poor William Sinclair would possibly be turning in his grave if he knew that the story of Rosslyn Chapel has been distorted beyond recognition by today’s conspiracy theorists.
Nevertheless, the carvings of Rosslyn Chapel are intriguing as they do not display typical Christian symbology. Rather, many of the ornate designs appear to have their origins in quite different ideologies, some of them quite obviously Pagan. For instance, there are more than 110 carvings of ‘Green Men’ in and around the chapel. Green Men are portrayed as carvings of human faces with greenery all around them, often with branches or vines that sprout from the nose, mouth, or other parts of the face.
According to one interpretation, the ‘Green Man’ is an ancient Celtic vegetation god, peering out from within the carved foliage. And he is present on Rosslyn’s most celebrated structure, the “Apprentice Pillar,” on which a chain of dragons nibble away at the roots of what’s been interpreted as the Nordic “Tree of Life.”
The Apprentice Pillar of Rosslyn Chapel. (Rosslyn Chapel)
The Green Man motif is found in many cultures from many ages around the world and is primarily interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of growth each spring. However, another perspective is that the Green Men were meant to represent the progress of a person’s life. These carvings start in the east as young men and end in the north as skeletons. Throughout the Green Men’s progress are biblical lessons. It is quite apt for such carvings to be in a chapel, as it reminds people of the temporality of human life and the message of Christianity.
Hidden Signs on the Ceiling?
One of the interesting features that has been apparently hidden, or at least lost for a time, in the carvings is a musical code that was cracked by a father-son team in 2005. Speaking on that discovery, Edinburgh Evening News writes:
“It took Mr Mitchell senior 27 years of painstaking study to discover the pitches and tonality of rectangles and cubes adorning arches on Rosslyn Chapel ceiling - dubbed “frozen music”. He later wrote the book ‘Music of the Cubes,’ providing a unique insight into the hidden symphonies contained within the carvings at the historic building.”
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Musical cubes. (Rosslyn Chapel)
The chapel’s ceiling is also believed to hold another intriguing story. Writer Jeff Nisbet told The Herald that the carved reliefs reveal dangerous knowledge:
"We can here see that William Sinclair encoded a very naturalistic message into his ceiling. He tells us it’s the sun, acting in concert with the tilted Earth and the pollinating insects, that makes things grow, as shown in the four flower-filled courses of the chapel’s ceiling. Moreover, since the sun's light passes each day through Rosslyn's arched ceiling of things that grow on Earth, it seems plausible that William was symbolically and correctly recording that our planet, contrary to church dogma, turns once daily on its axis and once annually around the sun. This would have been a rather dangerous message to write large in his chapel, high over the heads of the assembled Rosslyn congregation. History tells us that Giordano Bruno, 254 years after Rosslyn’s founding, was burned alive in Rome for professing, among other heresies, his belief in a heliocentric world.”
Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, Scotland – ceiling. (Otter/CC BY SA 3.0)
This is just one of the latest fascinating theories to emerge surrounding the meaning behind Rosslyn Chapel’s amazing carvings. While the Rosslyn Chapel has been immersed in many fanciful myths and legends, one should be careful to separate the fact from well-researched theories and both from fiction. Even without the whimsical tales, Rosslyn Chapel remains to be one of the most awe-inspiring and mysterious ancient buildings of Scotland.
Top Image: One of the best examples of over 100 ‘Green Man’ carvings in Rosslyn Chapel. Source: Rosslyn Chapel
Parkinson, D., 2014. Rosslyn Chapel & Roslin Castle. [Online]
The Scotsman, 2005. Rosslyn Chapel's Extraordinary Carvings Explained at Last. [Online]
The Scotsman, 2006. Historian Attacks Rosslyn Chapel for 'Cashing in on Da Vinci Code'. [Online]
Scotland.org, 2006. Rosslyn and the Grail Myths. [Online]
Available at: http://www.scotland.org/features/rosslyn-and-the-grail-myths/
Visitscotland.com, 2014. Rosslyn Chapel. [Online]
Available at: http://www.visitscotland.com/info/see-do/rosslyn-chapel-p564661