The Apprentice Pillar inside Rosslyn Chapel.
The Apprentice Pillar inside Rosslyn Chapel. Wikimedia Commons posted by user Guinnog

Rosslyn Chapel's sacred symbolism

GIVEN the straitened British economy you wonder if someone might bend the rules and put the name of American writer Dan Brown forward for some royal acknowledgement: services to British tourism, perhaps?

Brown's blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code - more than 83 million copies sold - is responsible for drawing many of the 25,000 annual visitors who make a pilgrimage to Scotland's Rosslyn Chapel, location of the novel's central mystery.

Picturesque and peculiar, Rosslyn Chapel, half an hour south of Edinburgh, feels remote on a small rise which overlooks farmland and forest. But even late on an overcast afternoon, a group of multinational tourists was being ushered through the tiny chapel and listening to a talk which, as far as I could hear, scrupulously avoided any mention of The Da Vinci Code.

And fair enough - there's much more to this remarkably ornate place than whispers about a bloodline of Christ.

The chapel has been in the Sinclair family since its foundation in 1446 by William Sinclair. Today a registered charity oversees the conservation of this building which - as Peter, the seventh and current Earl of Rosslyn notes in the DVD of the chapel's history - remains "an important place of worship".

When William founded the chapel, it was to be a centre of art and culture as much as a place of worship, and it is worth remembering that Scotland was ahead of the times in establishing universities and learning academies.

Remarkably Rosslyn Chapel survived the Reformation intact, and although it was sacked by Oliver Cromwell's troops in 1650 its sheer solidity meant much of the work by masons remains to delight and bewilder us today.

You can see why Brown picked it for his novel: the pagan face of the Green Man, Masonic and Christian imagery share equal space; there are stone carvings of musicians and Dance of Death figures on a sweeping overhead arch; the Seven Deadly Sins are flanked by the Seven Virtues, and knights, angels and demonic figures peer out from corners.

You could spend a long time trying to read meaning into these, and there are other bewilderments. There appear to be engravings of corn sheaves and cacti from the Americas carved half a century before Columbus.

One theory is that the first earl's grandfather sailed to Nova Scotia and befriended local Indians, and tribal stories from the Micmac people tell of a warrior from across the sea.

Everywhere in the chapel is rich ornamentation, religious symbolism, extravagant decorative detail and stone faces eroded by time into mysterious anonymity. But the place is also endangered.

When Dorothy Wordsworth saw it, she noted in her 19th-century journal: "The architecture within is exquisitely fine but as nothing is done to keep it together it must in the end fall."

Misguided conservation efforts in the middle of the last century - walls painted with a cement wash - have prevented the stone from drying out naturally. Today there is scaffolding over the chapel - but that is a bonus for visitors. You may now climb up and see the detail in the most remote parts of the roof.

The chapel was also the scene of a murder - an envious master mason killed an apprentice whose spiral column, which remains, was breathtakingly superior to his own - and in the sacristy below ground level, where services were once held for lepers, you may still see drawing on the walls by unknown hands of centuries ago.

Rosslyn Chapel is a work of art in itself. And you don't need to read a word of Dan Brown to recognise that.

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