16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World's Captivating Chapel
16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel

Trista - November 23, 2018

One of the most iconic buildings in the world is the enigmatic Rosslyn Chapel, a small church building during the fifteenth century just a few miles south of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh. What interests some people are the stone carvings that cover the chapel’s entire interior surface, and much of its exterior, as well. For others, the intrigue lays in the stories that are told about the chapel. Some have said that its founder was trying to leave a message for future generations to one day decipher. After all, the chapel was built during a time when illiteracy in Europe was high, and book-burning was common, so he left a message in stone that many people now are trying to understand.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
Drawing of the interior of Rosslyn Chapel. mythormorph.

16. William Sinclair Built Rosslyn Chapel in 1446

Very little is known about the people who actually constructed Rosslyn Chapel, particularly the stonemasons who created the intricate carvings that line both the interior and the exterior of the building. For many people, the whole place is shrouded in mystery, as its engravings have themes that are Christian, pagan, and even Masonic, though the chapel was built centuries before the organization known as the Freemasons came into existence. Much of its grandeur comes not from the building itself but the stories emanating from it.

One thing that is known is that it was originally founded in 1446 by a man named William Sinclair, who was the Prince of Orkney. Many of the documents relating to his own life and the origins of the chapel were destroyed in a fire, but some are preserved at the National Scottish Library in nearby Edinburgh. They show that the set out to construct a marvelous building and that he paid his workers quite handsomely – regular masons received a salary of 10 pounds per year, equivalent to 50,000 pounds today, far above today’s living wage. Master masons earned as much as 40 pounds a year, 200,000 pounds in today’s money.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
External view of Rosslyn Chapel. visitscotland.

15. Building Family Chapels Was a Common Practice Among Medieval Nobility

Chapels are basically smaller versions of churches. Many traditional churches in Europe, particularly those built in the Gothic style, feature numerous “chapels,” which are small rooms jutting out from the main sanctuary. Some people think it is quite unusual that William Sinclair would set out to build his own chapel. However, a common practice during the Middle Ages was for wealthy, noble families to construct their private family chapels, both as indications of their piety and as a means of showing off their wealth. Frequently, landowners who had workers tending to their grounds built chapels as a place for their workers to worship; these managed to evolve into parish churches.

Rosslyn Chapel has long been the place of worship for the Sinclair family. The decision to build a chapel may have been due, at least in part, to the religious persecution that was frequent in Scotland during the Late Middle Ages, particularly under leaders like the aptly-named Bloody Mary. As such, the chapel may have been a haven for the family members to practice their religious beliefs in private without fear of persecution. Some, however, believe that William Sinclair may have built it as a means of ensuring a place for him and his family in heaven.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
The ceiling of Rosslyn Chapel. blogspot.

14. Its Origins Might Be More Norman Than Scottish

The Sinclair family first came to the United Kingdom in 1066, along with William the Conqueror, from Normandy, a region in France. Normandy is on the French coast and was frequently attacked by bands of marauding Vikings. Eventually, they settled down there and established their own government, which coexisted with France’s other, more central government; they became known as Normans. One of William Sinclair’s ancestors was Sir Rollo, a Viking who settled down in Normandy and its first duke. From this area, under the leadership of the Normans, the Gothic style of architecture began, and it can be seen prominently in Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, as well as at Rosslyn Chapel.

In fact, many of the carvings at Rosslyn Chapel are very similar to those found at the nearby Melrose Abbey, another Medieval structure that was built about a hundred years earlier. Melrose Abbey was mainly developed under the leadership of French mason John Morrow, and its architectural style and carvings contain many commonalities with structures being built at the same time in France. It is possible that the builders at Rosslyn Chapel tried somewhat to imitate the style of Melrose Abbey in making the chapel resemble the French descent of the Sinclair family.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
The crypt inside Rosslyn Chapel. The Lothians.

13. William Sinclair Died Before the Chapel Was Completed

The project was so immense that the entire town of Rosslyn was built to accommodate the masons and other workers who would contribute to its construction. Ten thousand blocks of sandstone had to be quarried from nearby fields and brought to the site before they could be built into the masterpiece and carved by hand with the images that define the structure. The quarrying process itself probably took several years. Rosslyn Chapel took an astonishing forty years to build, and its founder, William Sinclair, passed away in 1484, just a couple of years before it was completed.

Many historians believe that he originally intended Rosslyn Chapel to be at least twice the size that it is today, making it an entire church as opposed to a small chapel. Many people who visit the chapel are amazed at how small it actually is, particularly for a building of such global fame. The fact that its founder passed away before its completion may be at least one reason as to why the original plans were not fulfilled. Had he lived longer, his original plans to build a much grander building might have been carried out, and Rosslyn Church would genuinely have been a wonder for the senses.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
A carved ceiling beam in Rosslyn Chapel depicting the seven virtues. The Lothians.

12. Exquisite, Enigmatic Carvings Cover Every Surface of the Chapel

The chapel’s claim to fame is not its grandeur, as the entire building is quite small. No, it is the mysterious stone carvings that line every single surface of the chapel. Helen Rosslyn, an art historian and the wife of the present Earl of Roslin, describes the experience of entering Rosslyn Chapel is stepping into a Medieval sculpture. What she means is that the place seems to be alive and carry its own narrative, which is told through its carvings.

Additionally, there are 110 carvings of so-called “green men” who have leaves and vines protruding from their mouths. One frieze has engravings that illustrate the seven deadly sins, while another frieze represents the seven virtues. There are carvings of angels, saints, and Jesus. There are gargoyles, skeletons, and demonic figures, including one of Lucifer. Rosettes and stars cover the ceiling. There are 213 cube-like boxes that protrude from archways and pillars, and no one is quite sure as to what the symmetry or design is regarding the placement.

No one knows quite what to make of all of these carvings. Some believe that they were designed to tell Biblical stories, as a standard feature of Medieval churches was the use of art to tell stories because the population was almost entirely illiterate. However, many of the symbols don’t have any apparent connection to Christianity, such as the cube-like boxes. Others, such as the green men, are connected to systems that are known to be outside of Christianity. These enigmatic carvings have given Rosslyn Chapel the mystique that made it so famous.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
Carvings that look like corn. questier.

11. Some of the Carvings Suggest a Connection to the Knights Templar

Conspiracy theorists and even some historians have long believed that the Knights Templar were connected to the founding of Rosslyn Chapel, and some of the carvings suggest that they may actually be correct. Some of the sculptures seem to be explicit depictions of a Knights Templar shield, with a giant cross spanning its height and width. Particularly of interest is that though the chapel was completed years before Columbus made his first voyage to the Americas, there are carvings of maize and corn; maize and corn only grew in the Americas at that time.

Some theories suggest that in the fourteenth century, a hundred years, before the building of Rosslyn Chapel, the Knights Templar may have sailed to what is now Canada, where they may have encountered Native Americans who grew corn. If this theory is correct, then some of them may have brought corn to Scotland, where other former members of the Knights Templar lived. Other theorists suggest that the carvings are not actually of maize and corn but resemble them to people who are so used to these commodities, but the story of the Knights Templar’s connection with the chapel is too good to pass up.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
Structure on top of the chapel. britishandirishhistory.

10. Rosslyn Chapel May Have Been Designed to Mimic the Temple of Solomon

The Temple of Solomon was built in Jerusalem around the 9th or 10th century BCE by Israel’s King Solomon, son of King David. It was a temple that housed in its innermost sanctum the Ark of the Covenant, over which the manifest presence of God rested. The exact plans for the temple are detailed in the Hebrew Bible, so there is little mystery about how it looked. It was destroyed a few centuries later by the Babylonians who ransacked Jerusalem and carried its inhabitants into exile. Then, King Herod rebuilt it, but this temple, too, was destroyed.

Plans of Rosslyn Chapel appear as if they could be overlaid directly on top of the blueprints of Solomon’s Temple, especially when one considers that the original intent was probably to make the chapel much, much larger than it presently is. When the Knights Templar guarded Jerusalem during the Crusades, they made as their headquarters the ruins of the Temple of Solomon, as it held significance to the order. Some of them may have traveled to Scotland to escape the persecution of their law in the fourteenth century. As such, it makes sense that Scotland’s most enigmatic structure would resemble Solomon’s Temple.

That said, nothing beyond the layout of the chapel’s plans imitates the Temple of Solomon. The temple was made out of cedar wood, not stone, and many of its details were overlaid with gold. Not so at Rosslyn, which may have had some paint originally but probably not gold leaf. Additionally, the builders of the temple would probably have been horrified at the idea of making so many carvings, particularly of pagan symbols. These carvings would probably have been seen as idolatrous and detracting from the worship of YHWH.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
Green man carving. jmhz.

9. The “Green Men” Carvings May Have Pagan Origins

Over 100 carvings of so-called “green men” can be found in the carvings at Rosslyn Chapel. While they are not painted green, they are identified as such because they are depicted with vines and leaves emanating from their mouths. The carvings only show their faces, but their faces seem to be part of the foliage that springs forth from them as if the leaf would not exist without them. Green men can be found on other Medieval Christian buildings, but they are particularly dominant at Rosslyn Chapel.

While plant imagery can be found in some illuminated texts of the Bible that date to the Middle Ages, the green men were distinctly pagan symbols. Some believe that they represented the cycles of life, death, and rebirth, common themes in the paganism of the British Isles. These themes can be seen in many of the other carvings, as well, such as those of skeletons. Some might be surprised that a Christian church would have pagan symbols carved into its walls. Explain why those carvings may be there. Indeed, this is one of the mysteries of Rosslyn Chapel. Some have attempted to explain the Christian significance of green men, but the fact that there are other pagan symbols, as well as additional symbols that fall outside of Christendom, cause this to be disputed.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
The Apprentice Pillar at Rosslyn Chapel. farm5.staticflickr.

8. The Legend of the Apprentice Pillar is Connected to the Freemasons

Freemasonry claims that its traditions go all the way back to the building of the Temple of Solomon, particularly to Hiram Abif, its alleged master mason. He was sworn not to tell the secrets of his masonry to anyone and was killed – struck with a mallet – for doing so. Today, initiation rituals for the Freemasons include re-enactments of this legend, thereby reinforcing not only the importance of masonry’s traditions but also the need for keeping utmost secrecy regarding the goings-on of the organization. The story of Hiram Abif is somewhat reflected in the legend of the Apprentice Pillar at Rosslyn Chapel.

The legend says that the chapel’s master mason was given the plans for a particularly wondrous pillar, which he could not construct until he had first traveled to Rome to view the original at the Vatican. While he was gone, one of his apprentices went ahead and created the pillar, and the work was done flawlessly. When the master mason returned, he was so envious of what his apprentice had accomplished that he struck him with a mallet. While the legend may or may not have a historical basis, carvings of the master mason and his murdered apprentice can be seen at Rosslyn, facing the Apprentice Pillar.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
Mason’s marks. rosslyntemplars.org.uk.

7. Mysterious “Masons’ Marks” Line Much of the Uncarved Surface

Very little is known about the masons who carved the intricate designs that line the entire interior and much of the exterior of Rosslyn Chapel. We don’t even know what their names were, not even the legendary master and apprentice whose story is immortalized in the Apprentice Pillar. However, some clues as to their identities may lie in tiny etchings that can be seen on some of the uncarved areas within the chapel. They are simple designs, usually basic geometric forms, that have a picturesque quality. These marks may be types of signatures as to the masons who carved those particular brick of stone.

Some people believe that there may be more to these marks than mere signatures; they are clues meant to be deciphered as to the true meaning of Rosslyn Chapel. After all, leaving behind a name was uncommon for masons, particularly at the time of the building of Rosslyn Chapel. They believe that the Masons were trying to carve their messages – possibly about the Templars or the Freemasons – into stone so that they could not be lost to posterity. Given that there are approximately 24 masons’ marks but were probably many more than 24 masons, and some of the masons’ marks may be repeated, there may be some truth to this claim. However, no one has managed to decipher what those messages might mean.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
Carvings of angels with instruments at Rosslyn Chapel. Slate.

6. Some Believe the Carvings Are Musical Scores

As you can see, there is no shortage of theories as to the meaning that may be embedded within the enigmatic symbology carved into the stones of Rosslyn Chapel. One particularly interesting theory claims that some of the rocks, particularly the hundreds of cube-like boxes, were designed to write down a musical score. In essence, Rosslyn Chapel is a piece of music waiting to be played. Tommy and Stuart Mitchell, a father-and-son team of musicians, are the chief architects of this particular theory. They think that they have uncovered what the actual sounds were that are carved into the stone and explained that it was like listening to a CD from the Middle Ages.

One piece of evidence that the Mitchells point to is the carvings of musical angels found throughout the chapel. They are carrying instruments, such as lutes and harps, which are designed with such precise detail that even the tuning knobs are realistic. Between them can often be found asymmetrical, seemingly arbitrary, placements of the cube-like boxes. The idea that the arrangement of the cubes indicates a particular location on a musical scale – probably a pentatonic scale – explains the seemingly arbitrary position of the cubes.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
The Chancel of Rosslyn Chapel, 1878.
Photo by George Washington Wilson

5. Some Believe the Holy Grail Is Buried There

Going back to the Knights Templar theme, there are some who believe that the chapel was constructed as a repository for the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus drank from the night before He was crucified. The Knights Templar were believed to be searching for the Grail, along with other relics like wood from the cross; some think that they found the Grail under the Temple of Solomon while they were protecting the city of Jerusalem during the Crusades. However, these claims are highly dubious.

Still, there is nothing like a good story, and Rosslyn Chapel is almost nothing if it is not the central feature of many good stories. The speculation is that in the fourteenth century when the Knights Templar order was officially abolished, and many of its leaders put to death, some of the survivors traveled to Scotland. Their descendants influenced the building of Rosslyn Chapel; in fact, William Sinclair himself may have been associated with the order. It was there at Rosslyn Chapel, probably under the Apprentice Pillar, that they buried the Holy Grail as a means of preserving it. Their descendants formed the organization known as the Freemasons, and the leaders of the Freemasons know the secrets of Rosslyn Chapel and the Grail.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
Side view of Rosslyn Chapel. 2.bp.

4. The Chapel Fell into Disrepair

The Scottish Reformation of 1560 was a bloody, tumultuous affair that resulted in the persecution of many Catholic Scots. The Sinclair family, which was of French descent, had long been Roman Catholic, and the denomination was the primary one of the services held at Rosslyn Chapel. The chapel was closed to all but members of the Sinclair family until 1861 to minimize the dangerous conditions brought about by the Scottish Reformation. It was all but completely abandoned as a result of the religious persecution brought by the Scottish Reformation. One result of its closing was that it fell into a state of severe disrepair.

Scotland has a cold, wet climate, and the chapel’s limestone began to absorb large amounts of moisture, thereby damaging them. Mosses, ferns, and other organic life began to grow inside the chapel, causing even more damage to the stones. The chapel turned green from the moss and was considered to be ruined. Queen Victoria visited in 1842 and found the place worthy of repairs to preserve it. Restoration projects began in 1862, the year after the chapel re-opened to the public. When the plans were completed, the services that were carried out were of the Scottish Episcopalian Church.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
A modern-day picture of the interior of Rosslyn Chapel. The Lothians.

3. Restoration Efforts in the 1950s Nearly Destroyed the Chapel

By the mid-twentieth century, Scotland’s wet, cold climate had caused the chapel’s stones to absorb so much moisture that the walls appeared to be crying from the water that regularly ran down them. In 1954, Scotland’s Ministry of Works declared that the building was suffering extreme effects of the dampness, and if nothing were done, the dilapidated building would likely be condemned. A restoration project was quickly begun to reserve this condition. Videos of workers carrying out the restoration reveal what happened.

Initially, workers used fine brushes to remove any debris – be it dust or organic matter that had attached to the stone – in the effort to thoroughly clean the rocks. In the next stage, workers used three-inch paint brushes to coat all of the stone with a cement slurry, several layers. This method caused substantial damage to two levels. The first is that rather than protecting the rocks from additional moisture seeping in, the slurry actually sealed inside the stones the moisture that was already in them. The second is that it covered over many of the fine details that could be seen on the original carvings. Additional restoration projects were required to remove the dampness from inside the stones, but so far, there are no cost-effective means of removing the layers of cement.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
An exterior picture of the restored chapel today. ecosia.

2. The Da Vinci Code Brought About the “Rosslyn Miracle”

Dan Brown said that when he began writing his breakout novel, The Da Vinci Code, he “knew that its finale would have to take place at the most mysterious and magical chapel on earth — Rosslyn.” Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu’s search for the Holy Grail brought them to this iconic building where, in the story, Sophie meets the grandmother that she had long believed was dead. The story is of course fiction, and almost all of the claims about the Holy Grail are pseudo-history that have long been debunked by historians. However, the effect that the novel had on Rosslyn Chapel was nothing short of miraculous.

Fans of The Da Vinci Code flocked to the chapel to view its enigmatic carvings for themselves and see what they could make of them. The chapel had long been a site for tourists to visit, but with the book’s success, the number of visitors surged from just a few hundred per month to as many as 176,000. The income generated from all of these visitors enabled the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, which is concerned with the chapel’s preservation, to carry out many much-needed restorations. The fortunes of the decaying were completely turned around, and its stone treasures will likely be enjoyed for generations to come.

16 Facts that Prove Rosslyn Chapel is the World’s Captivating Chapel
Aerial view of Rosslyn Chapel as it looks today. earthspiritessences.

1. The Sinclair Family Still Maintains Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel today is open to the public and is one of the most popular locations for tourists to visit. It is also frequented by locals and scholars who want to peer more deeply into the secrets that it has held for centuries. Given the chapel’s public nature and global notoriety, one might expect that the Scottish government owns it. However, it is still preserved and maintained by the Sinclair family, the descendants of the first Viking leader of Normandy and later of William Sinclair. It is a private building, and the Sinclair family holds all the rights to it.

This fact has generated quite a buzz for conspiracy theorists. If William Sinclair was a descendant of the Knights Templar, then maybe some of the secrets that he passed on to his offspring have been shared in their original entirety within the family. Perhaps the Holy Grail and other relics can be found within the walls, or possibly under the floors, of Rosslyn Chapel. Maybe some secrets of the chapel’s history will remain within the family, at least for the time being. If nothing else, the chapel will continue to create one hell of a story.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Rosslyn Chapel: A Treasure in Stone Documentary.” BBC.

“Rosslyn Chapel: The Apprentice Pillar.” Pieter-Stones Review of Freemasonry. October 9, 2018.

“Secrets of Rosslyn Chapel,” by Jeff Nisbet. Atlantis Rising. March/April 2003.

“The Da Vinci Code.” The Official Rosslyn Chapel Website.

“Researching the history of chapels,” by Jean Manco. Researching Historic Buildings in the British Isles. November 12, 2016.

“Rosslyn Chapel.” Wikipedia.

“Count the Green Men.” The Official Rosslyn Chapel Website.

“From Jerusalem to Rosslyn?: The Templars in Scotland.” BBC.

“The Real Da Vinci Code: Are the Chapel’s Mysterious Stone Symbols a Musical Score?” by Chris Wilson. Slate. May 17, 2011.

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