Rosslyn Chapel: A Legacy in Stone

rosslyn chapel - rosslyn Ground Scans

Anne Burgess / Rosslyn Chapel a legacy in stone / CC BY-SA 2.0

by Dr. Karen Ralls © 2003

Near Edinburgh, Scotland, stands Rosslyn Chapel, one of the most ornately-carved 15th century medieval stone chapels in all of Europe. In more recent times, Rosslyn has become more widely known, as the building and its history were featured in the movie, The Da Vinci Code. Although Rosslyn is officially known as the Collegiate Church of St. Matthew and is today an active Scottish Episcopal church, the chapel retains its special historic legacy for all to see and experience.

In my research, I describe and explain the symbolism of the exquisite medieval carvings in the chapel, from the Green Man to the famed Apprentice Pillar, and explain the key components of its history. Through the centuries, many have thought that there may be the Grail or some other treasure hidden there. But why is this small Scottish chapel so important today? Let us start with the known facts.

An extraordinary effort in its time, at the end of the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, work on the chapel began in 1446 and was personally overseen by Sir William St. Clair, the third and last St. Clair Prince of Orkney. According to an account written in 1700 by Father Richard Augustine Hay, Canon of St. Genevieve in Paris. Sir William inspected each of the hundreds of images in draft form in wood before giving it to the masons to carve in stone. Fr. Hay refers to various builders and masons as coming from “other regions” and “foreign kingdoms”, with France as a good bet.

Although Rosslyn Chapel took nearly 40 years to build, contrary to popular belief, Sir William was not a Knight Templar nor a Freemason. Rosslyn was begun in 1446 — much later than the dissolution of the Templar order (1312) and much earlier than the official beginnings of Freemasonry (1717), with the establishment of the Grand Lodge of England.

There is no documented historical evidence for a medieval Knights Templar connection with Rosslyn Chapel itself; further, the Templars did not build Rosslyn Chapel. However, not far away, at the nearby village of Temple, still stand the ruins of what was once the genuine headquarters of the Scottish Knights Templar, then called Balandtradoch. So the real Templar connection is not, in fact, at the site of Rosslyn Chapel, it is at the village of Temple, where the ruins of the Scottish preceptory can still be seen today.

Although Rosslyn Chapel was generously endowed by its founder, Sir William St. Clair, and by his grandson, by the time of the tumultous 16th century, the Reformation had a devastating effect on religious sites in Scotland. Many Catholic churches, altars and furnishings were badly damaged or destroyed, and the Rosslyn Chapel, too, fell into disuse. In 1650, Oliver Cromwell’s troops attacked nearby Rosslyn Castle; in addition, his troops also housed his horses in nearby Rosslyn Chapel as well. Some believe this may have helped to save the chapel from further destruction, claiming that Cromwell was a Freemason, and that this may have been why he did not order the chapel destroyed. Yet there is no direct evidence that Cromwell was a Freemason, according to the Grand Lodge of England.

In 1688, an angry Protestant mob from Edinburgh and Roslin village pillaged and burnt the castle and further damaged the chapel, which remained abandoned until 1736, when James St. Clair began repairs. Given this turbulent history, we are fortunate indeed to have Rosslyn Chapel in all its glory today.

The profusion of carved symbolism is extraordinary throughout the chapel, ranging from biblical allegory to pagan symbolism. One of the best-known images is of the Green Man, of which there are at least 103 representations inside the chapel alone, with an additional number on the exterior and roof as well. Art historians have noted that Rosslyn Chapel has the greatest number of Green Man images of any medieval chapel in Europe.

Commonly portrayed as a head with profuse foliage growing from his mouth, the Green Man (and Lady) represent fertility, growth, and the fecundity of nature. The many faces of the Green Man range from joyful to downright impish. Although many assume that the Green Man is mainly a “Celtic” motif, this is not the case. Green Man carvings are also found in ancient eastern temples, in the Apo Kayan area of Borneo, the chapels of Dhankar Gompa in the Himalayas, in the temples of Kathmandu and in the Jain temples of Ranakpur, and in Roman buildings. In short, the Green Man is a universal theme with very early roots.

In the context of Rosslyn chapel, no doubt Sir William was acknowledging the inherent Celtic traditions of the area and the beautiful natural setting of Roslin Glen. It may well be that the chapel is placed precisely where it is because of the surrounding natural environment and the fact that the glen was known to many long before the chapel or castle were built; bronze age artifacts have been found here, and Roman finds involving the possible worship of Mithras, and what many believe to be runic and/or Pictish carvings have also been discovered.

The Apprentice Pillar
Stunning in its exquisitely carved beauty, the famous Apprentice Pillar at Rosslyn is associated with much of the historical legacy of the chapel, and is one of three stone pillars believed to represent the concepts of wisdom, strength, and beauty. Its symbolism as a whole represents to some a ‘world tree’, a fountain of immortality, illustrating the perpetual conflict of the forces of light and darkness. At its base is the “Dread Biter” serpent of the Norse sagas, said to lie at the root of the Yggdrasil world tree, which continuously gnaws away at the forces of darkness and ignorance.

In more modern times, some have attempted to claim that the Apprentice pillar is hollow and may contain a “Grail” hidden within its pillar–specifically, a silver platter. Scans have been done of the pillar and no metal was detected; however, others speculate that the Grail hidden there is not made of metal. Some insist it may be a mummified head of Christ or a simple wooden chalice, yet there is no proof of these theories.

The Apprentice Pillar also has a special Masonic tale associated with it, as explained by the Earl of Rosslyn in the official chapel guidebook:

“The Master Mason, having received from the Founder the moder of a pillar of exquisite workmanship and design, hesitated to carry it out until he had been to Rome . . . and seen the original. He went abroad and in his absence an apprentice . . . set to work and carried out the design as it now stands, a perfect marvel of workmanship. The Master Mason on his return, seeing the pillar completed, instead of being delighted at the success of his pupil, was so stung with envy that . . . with rage and passion . . . he struck [the apprentice] with his mallet, killed him on the spot.”

Much of the genuine message of Rosslyn Chapel is as much about where a specific carving is located and how it relates to what is around it, as about the design of a specific carving. It is often neglected that much of the symbolism at Rosslyn is from the Old or New Testament or is apocryphal-based, or may be pagan iconography–a great variety of symbols are present. At Rosslyn, it does matter if a carving is located on the north wall as opposed to the east wall, or next to one carving and not another, for example. In a sense, Rosslyn can be “read” as a library in stone. If you start in the northeast corner and walk clockwise around the chapel, the Green Men carvings get progressively older, for example, and the Dance of Death carving is closer to the end than the beginning. The great Cycle unfolds . . .

Theories abound about what material treasures may be hidden at Rosslyn Chapel, speculations that have created a “mythos in the making” about this religious site. In keeping with many medieval family chapels, the founder and a number of his descendants are buried in its vaults; yet, even so, some rather wild speculations continue, which have unfortunately largely detracted from the important architectural legacy of the chapel and the good work of the Sinclair family and Rosslyn Chapel Trust in preserving the building. The question remains: Will the vaults of Rosslyn Chapel ever be excavated?

The Director of Rosslyn Chapel Trust, Mr. Stuart Beattie, was asked about the excavation issue, clarifying:

“Due to the Scottish law of the ‘Right of Sepulchre’, a rather lengthy legal procedure would have to be followed, in order to secure the necessary permission to dig on the church grounds by the authorities. Meanwhile, the focus is on the preservation of the building, and not on excavation, at this time. ”

James Simpson, architect of the extensive conservation project at Rosslyn, states in his recent contribution to the book that accompanied the 2002 Rosslyn art exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland:

“It may be 2010 before the programme of conservation and development currently envisaged is completed. Fifty or so years of decline will have been followed by thirty years of making up the deficit. Nor will that be the end of the matter; managing and caring for a site like Rosslyn never ends. It is in the very nature of ‘heritage’ that responsibilities, as well as rights, are passed on from generation to generation . . . ”

Speculation will undoubtedly continue as the conservation project will not be finished until at least 2010, and any excavation would occur after that at the very earliest.

Over the years various churches, Guilds, the Templars, the Rosicrucians, and the Masons have all recognized something of their own traditions in the complex allegory presented by Rosslyn Chapel–an arcanum, a book in stone.

The Templars, too, have never lost their intrigue or mystery for us today. By exploring the major interrelated topics about this medieval military religious order, historians hope more information will some to light in the coming years. Let us recall, too, in our modern times, one of the Templars’ important mottoes–’Carpe Diem!” (Seize the day!).

About the author – Karen RallsKaren Ralls, PhD, medieval historian, religious studies scholar, and international lecturer, was Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Edinburgh for six years before continuing her specialist medieval period research in Oxford, England. A member of the Oxford University Religious Studies Society, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Friends of Christ Church Cathedral, Dr Ralls is the author of The Knights Templar Encyclopedia (2007) and other books, and has an award-winning website

About Us was started in the fall of 1997 by Stephen Dafoe, a Canadian author who has written several books on the Templars and related subjects.

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