The Rose Chapel

Trip Start May 31, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

A couple years back, way before the DaVinci Code came out a book called Holy Blood Holy Grail had caught my attention.  None of the Grail lore that's buzzing out there now existed back then.  I ordered the book from Amazon since I was unable to find it in any local bookshop back home in Buenos Aires. 
The book captivated and intrigued me, so when the DaVinci Code came out I was thrilled but a little disappointed that such a circus freak show had been made of the subject.  Then the movie came and by this time, everyone was sick and tired of hearing about the secret life of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. 
But while in Edinburgh, Ed and I didn't hesitate in driving down to the town of Roslin, to see if there was any truth to the details and mysteries surrounding Rosslyn Chapel.  (For those of you who have not read the book or seen the movie, Rosslyn Chapel is supposedly where the Grail, the secret to Jesus' bloodline, was hidden)
We couldn't help our curiosity, so we travelled toward the Midlothian town of Roslin, home of an important Scottish noble family descended from Norman knights. The Sinclairs (or St. Clairs) had built their castle in the vicinity of Roslin and subsequently built Rosslyn Chapel in the 15th Century as a collegiate chapel, intended to spread intellectual and spiritual knowledge to the community. 
As we reached Roslin after a half hour drive, we were not surprised to find that the main focus of the town was towards the chapel; there was a large parking lot for tourist buses and cars, and signs everywhere pointing toward the chapel as the main attraction.  We paid or entrance fees of 7 each and entered the grounds where the chapel was standing.   It disappointed me to see a metallic structure and roof covering the entire chapel, as if to guard it from the sun and rain.  Because of this structure, it was very hard to fully envision the shape, size and detail of the chapel.  I would later find out that this was because they were preserving it from the damage of rain and humidity, like an umbrella.
As we walked inside, Ed and I were both surprised at the small size of the chapel, but were quickly distracted by a guide who had started speaking to the entire group of people who had just entered. We joined in and she told us about the history and the magic of the place, while we looked around at the intricate details, mesmerized by the motifs and decorations that filled every spot, corner, and edge.  
The entire place looked as if it had been slowly engulfed by a forest of white vines, leaflets, flowers and petals, with the same lulling movements of a quiet rivulet, just as in Sleeping Beauty.  The foliage of the designs was so wonderfully carved, with curvy dips and spiralling rises. It was a cloudy day so not a lot of light was coming in through the small windows, but there was artificial lighting inside illuminating the most important parts of the carvings, sometimes creating surreal shadows. 
We heard about the story of the Master Mason and his Apprentice.  When building the chapel, the master mason ordered his apprentices to do the carve work on some of the pillars.  When he returned he saw that one of the apprentices had carved the pillar in his own fashion, instead of following the design of the Master Mason.  Nonetheless the pillar was beautiful, even more beautiful than the model of the master mason.  In a fit of fury and jealousy he hit the apprentice over the head with a sledgehammer and killed him. Over the centuries this story was the main reason why people came from far and wide to the chapel.  The master mason's pillar stands opposed to the Apprentice's pillar in the Lady Chapel, holding up the vault right behind the altar. 
The symbols and imagery in the chapel are vast, but the most well known motif was that of the Green Man.  It's an ancient pagan icon, probably Celtic, representing a Nature deity, and a symbol of the rebirth of Nature from winter to spring.  He is found in many churches of the North and is always portrayed as the face of a man with leaves or vines coming out of his nose, ears and mouth or enveloping his entire face.  In the Rosslyn Chapel, the green man is everywhere: hiding behind an angel, in front of the altar, in the chorus.  He is depicted here in all the stages of his life, from young to old, the prime of his age being found in the centre of the church. The guide left an interesting question open: why would such an ancient pagan image be included over and over again in this Christian chapel?
A Dance of Death on an arch rib depicted a string of skeletons dancing around with popes, bishops, kings and emperors.  The guide explained that this was to show the illiterate common folk that Death comes to us all, rich or powerful.  Images that taught something or got a point across were very common in medieval times, when people were mostly uneducated. 
The vaults of the central nave were covered in a thick canopy of roses, lilies, daisies, and stars.  I sat down on one of the pews and looked upward, wondering what the congregation must have felt like under this sky of flowers and tiny stars, which now were colourless except for some green mold, but back then were painted and decorated with rich and vivid colours. 

Behind the altar, in the Lady Chapel there were carved cubes that stuck out from the arch ribs above our heads. Each one is different and it is believed that each individual symbol represents musical notes or keys to a secret code which remains undeciphered. There were also many symbols Ed and I found etched on the stones, hidden away, as if it were old masonic graffiti but the symbols were quite bizarre.  The guides never mentioned those. 
After walking out and about the small church, Ed and I took a tour of the grounds, which according to the guide were lovely.  She pointed us towards the St. Clair Castle just a few minutes away.  We decided to go off the beaten path, as the bushes and thick trees looked so much more appealing that the dirt path leading to the castle.  On our way we spotted tiny black and brown baby rabbits nibbling on some grass but scurried off when we tried to get closer.  Smart bunnies: I would've taken them home for pets if I had caught them.  
We spotted the castle in ruins which wasn't much too look at except for the interestingly curved stone bridge which led to the front gate.  Underneath the bridge crossed a sunlit grove filled with a green mattress of leaves and little white bell-shaped flowers.  We explored a little further and found a small stream fed by a few cascades dribbling from the rocky ridges.  
It was time to go back so we climbed our way back up the glen encountering more rabbits and snow drops and daffodils.  As we walked back to the car we took one last look at Rosslyn Chapel, now empty of tourists.  An elderly priest was walking in a hurry to get everything ready for the service.  It was nice to know that even though the chapel is an important historical site now subjected to a tourist frenzy to the dismay of the local congregation, it is still used it for what it was originally intended.
There is no other church or place of worship similar to Rosslyn Chapel, it's unique in every way, and maybe that's why so many stories and mysteries have been attributed to it.   Even though the guide had demystified the rumours and conspiracy theories surrounding the Chapel, there were still many unanswered questions, many unsolved enigmas and unknown facts that they themselves admitted to.  I don't know if the grail is hidden here, but it's certainly a place worth hiding it in. 

May the Roses Bloom Upon Your Cross        

Rosslyn Chapel 14.00
Guide book 4.00
Total spent 18.00
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