Rosslyn Chapel

The Intriguing Carvings of Rosslyn Chapel


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 15 th century by William Sinclair, 1 st 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 exquisite carvings are among the best in the whole of Europe, and portray scenes not found in any other 15th century chapel.

Rosslyn Chapel. Image source: Wikipedia


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. 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 they are not as unique as commonly made out to be.

Rosslyn Chapel - Window

Surrounding a window are carvings of maize or Indian Corn. Credit: Rosslyn Chapel

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 that Freemasonry had not yet exist 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 popularised 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.

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 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, an example of which is depicted in the featured image, are 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 on Rosslyn’s most celebrated structure, the “Prentice Pillar,” on which a chain of dragons nibble away at the roots of what’s been interpreted as the Nordic “Tree of Life.”  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.

While the Rosslyn Chapel has been immersed in many fanciful myths and legends, and one should be careful to separate the fact from the fiction, it remains to be one of the most awe-inspiring and mysterious ancient buildings of Scotland.

Featured image: Green Man" of the Rosslyn Chapel. Credit: Visit Scotland

By Ḏḥwty


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Justbod's picture

Close to the top of my list of places I haven't visited yet but want to! Thanks for the article!

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