Mysteries of Rosslyn Chapel, the Templars and the Grail
by Dr. Karen Ralls, FSA Scot.
First published in DUAT magazine, Issue 1 (Sept 2002), based on material from earlier publications by Dr Ralls. Images of carvings discussed in this article may be seen in the book The Templars & the Grail, and in the video footage accompanying the DUAT article
Just a few miles south of Edinburgh, Scotland, stands one of the most ornately-carved 15th century medieval stone chapels in all of Europe. Perhaps you have visited Rosslyn Chapel, seen it featured in numerous TV documentaries, or heard of it from books like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail or The Hiram Key. The enigmatic symbolism of Rosslyn's carvings—from the Green Man to the famed Apprentice Pillar—continue to intrigue many today.
Rosslyn Chapel has been the focus of many a special Quest throughout the centuries, and is thought to hold a number of long lost secrets. It is believed by many to house everything from the Ark of the Covenant, the mummified head of Christ, the Holy Grail, a Black Madonna, lost scrolls from the Temple of Jerusalem, the treasures of the Knights Templar, and much more, deep within its vaults. For years many have speculated about what -if anything- may have been hidden at Rosslyn, who put it there, and why. Others remain sceptical, saying that until the vaults are actually excavated, no one can say for sure. There have been many theories about the chapel and the secrets it may hold, from sober analysis to wild speculation. History, myth and legend seem to be all intertwined when dealing with a subject as complex as Rosslyn.
But is there truth in any of this, after all? Are the priceless scrolls from the temple of Jerusalem actually buried there? What about the missing crown jewels of Scotland and the Holy Rood? Is the Holy Grail really hidden there, and were the treasures of the medieval Knights Templar taken there? And why is Rosslyn Chapel so important today?
As there are many theories about Rosslyn, this article will provide an overview about the Templars and the Holy Grail in relation to Rosslyn Chapel, as a general introduction to my forthcoming The Templars & the Grail (May 2003) Much material about Rosslyn Chapel has already been covered in The Quest for the Celtic Key (2002), co-authored with Ian Robertson, but here I will also address some of the Templar and Grail themes regarding Rosslyn Chapel.
But before we begin to unravel this intricate web, let's start with some of the known facts about Rosslyn.
Sir William St. Clair, founder
Work was started on this magnificent stone chapel in 1446. It was an extraordinary effort in its time, one personally overseen by the illustrious founder himself, Sir William St Clair, the third and last St. Clair Prince of Orkney. (¹) The fact that he took the time to carefully inspect the design for each and every carving shows that he was very concerned that each carving be sculpted precisely as he wanted it, as part of his overall vision. The result is a unique 'arcanum in stone' for posterity. It took 40 years to build and is actually only part of what was intended to be a much larger building with a tower at its centre.
Rosslyn Chapel was begun in 1446, in the time period in between the dissolution of the Templar order (1312) and the official beginnings of Freemasonry (1717). The Grand Lodge of England did not officially start until 1717; the Grand Lodge of Scotland followed in 1736, when Sir William St. Clair also became the first Scottish Grand Master, as he was head of the St. Clair family of Rosslyn.
Knights of Santiago and the Order of the Golden Fleece
One of the best-known sources about Rosslyn Chapel and the St. Clair family was written in 1700 by Father Richard Augustine Hay, Canon of St. Genevieve in Paris and Prior of St. Piermont. There are no contemporary accounts, so Father Hay's account is viewed by many as the best source about the early history of Rosslyn Chapel, even though it was actually written some 215 years after the chapel was completed. However, some researchers question parts of Fr. Hay's account, believing that he undoubtedly had his own biases like any other writer at the time. But nonetheless, it still remains as one of the earliest known sources about Rosslyn in the public domain today. In it, Fr. Hay describes how the founder, Sir William St. Clair, personally inspected each and every carving in draft form before giving it to the masons to carve in stone. He mentions builders and stone masons coming from "other regions" and "foreign kingdoms", yet no one to this day can say for certain exactly where they came from, leading to further speculation, with France as a 'good bet.' (¹)
The Reformation and Rosslyn
Rosslyn Chapel was generously endowed by the founder, Sir William, and by his grandson (also Sir William) in 1523, with land for dwelling houses and gardens. But as the Reformation took hold in 16th century Scotland, this change had a devastating effect on the chapel. During this time, the Sinclairs still remained Catholic, but as history has shown, many Catholic churches, altars and furnishings were very badly damaged or destroyed. The chapel gradually fell into disuse. But in 1650, Cromwell's troops under General Monck attacked Rosslyn Castle and his horses were housed in the chapel. Some believe this actually 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 to be greatly damaged. But there is no direct proof of this. (¹) Later, on the 11 December 1688, an angry Protestant mob from Edinburgh and Roslin village pillaged and burnt Rosslyn Castle and further damaged the chapel. It remained abandoned until 1736, when James St. Clair began repairs, at the encouragement of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik. Interestingly, 1736 is the same year as the official founding of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. So, given this rather turbulent history, we are very fortunate indeed to even have Rosslyn Chapel in all of its glory still available for us to see today.
The Green Man
Inside Rosslyn Chapel, the profusion of carved symbolism is extraordinary, ranging from biblical allegory to pagan symbolism. One of the best-known carvings is the Green Man. For example, there are at least 103 carved images of the Green Man in the chapel alone, but this does not take into account the others on the outside, or on the roof! Rosslyn has the greatest number of Green Man images of any chapel in Europe. The Green Man is usually portrayed as a head with profuse foliage growing from the mouth, which represents fertility. Some have suggested that this may be the mysterious 'Baphomet' head of the Templars, but there is no proof of this at all. Descriptions of the 'Baphomet' severed head vary greatly and come from Inquisitional records of the trial of the Templars, much of which was obtained under great torture, so they are obviously not the most reliable of sources. 'Baphomet' was something far more abstract and was probably not even a physical object at all.
The many faces of the Rosslyn Green Men appear in many guises, from the joyful to the downright impish. The Green Man in a Christian context is often said to represent death and resurrection, similar to earlier traditions of vegetation gods who died and rose again, like Tammuz or Osiris, for example. Generally, it wasn't until the 6th century before the Green Man motif shows up in western Christian carvings.
Although many assume that the Green Man is a mainly "Celtic" theme, this is not the case at all. Green Man carvings are also found in a number of ancient eastern temples, something that unfortunately doesn't seem to be widely acknowledged in the west. Ancient images of the Green Man can still be seen in the Apo Kayan area of Borneo, where he is perceived as the Lord God of the Forest, in the chapels of Dhankar Gompa, high in the Indian Himalayas, in the temples of Kathmandu, Nepal, and in the Jain temples of Ranakpur, among others. In short, the Green Man is a universal theme, with very early roots: "Heads from the Lebanon and Iraq can be dated to the 2nd century A.D., and there are early Romanesque heads in 11th century Templar churches in Jerusalem. From the 12th to the 15th centuries, heads appeared in cathedrals and churches across Europe...." (¹)
But in the context of a late medieval Scottish chapel, no doubt the founder Sir William Sinclair was acknowledging the Celtic traditions of the area and the beautiful natural setting of the chapel itself. It may well be that the chapel itself is placed precisely where it is because of the surrounding natural environment. It is not generally ackowledged that the glen in particular was known to many long before Rosslyn was built, as bronze age artefacts have been found there, in addition to Roman finds involving the possible worship of Mithras and what many believe to be runic and/or Pictish carvings. Some gifted dowsers have speculated that the area is an important one in geomantic terms, pointing out that various 'ley lines' intersect involving Rosslyn's location within a geometric world grid pattern—a theory that other researchers have examined. Clearly, Rosslyn and its environs has been viewed as a 'power spot' for some time.
The colour green
The proliferation of Green Man images at Rosslyn is acknowledging the 'aliveness' of the earth, as well as the processes of nature, a not-too-surprising image to find in such a bountiful location. But the Green Man may also represent an alchemical theme of transformation; if so, then this, perhaps, is getting closer to one of the major 'messages' the founder may have left for posterity. As explained in greater detail in The Quest for the Celtic Key, the colour green also shows up with a remarkable frequency involving Grail symbolism, as in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the hermit Trevrizent has a green shrine or reliquary. Guinevere's robes are described in Arthurian legends of being an emerald or malachite green colour, and, of course, the Emerald Tablets of Hermes were green, as is one of the dimensions of the Celtic 'fairyland'. Druidic neophytes were known to have worn green robes, and women described as 'fairies' in medieval ballads are often described as wearing green. An emerald sword appears as the very sword used to behead John the Baptist in certain Grail stories, in others, it is the very object quested for by Sir Gawain the Green Knight. In Islamic tradition, El Ehidr, the Green One, wears a robe of shimmering green, and is said to be the guardian of the source of the Waters of Immortality. Even in the Wizard of Oz, we have the 'Emerald City', the wizard's home. So perhaps it's not surprising that, like the Grail legends, the colour green itself eventually became "suspect" to the Church, as it was associated with the dead, witches and fairies, and brought with it the familiar superstition that green is somehow "unlucky". This was the opposite of how the colour green was seen in ancient times, (¹) as then, the image of the Green Man symbolized a "portal" to the Otherworld in a symbolic sense, a connection between humanity and nature.
In general, the colour green still symbolizes spring, paradise, reproduction, initiation, joy, abundance, prosperity, hope, immortality, and in medieval times, it became the colour of St. John the Evangelist. The quest for the Grail is also seen as an attempt to 'return' to Paradise, the spiritual centre of humanity and the universe. The dynamic interplay between man and nature is clearly symbolized by the Green Man, Rosslyn's most prolific carving—a 'statement' in and of itself.
The Apprentice Pillar
Stunning in its exquisitely carved beauty, the famous Apprentice Pillar at Rosslyn Chapel has a number of legends associated with it. It is the third of three pillars, believed to represent Wisdom, Strenth, and Beauty. Its symbolism as a whole represents the Nordic 'world tree', the Yggdrasil, the fountain of immortality, illustrating the perpetual conflict of the forces of light and darkness. At its base is the "Dread Biter" serpent of Norse legend, said to lie at the root of Yggdrasil, who continuously gnaws away at the forces of darkness. The Sinclairs were of Norman and Scandavanian descent, so these parallels are not all that surprising.
The most popular 'Grail' legend about the Apprentice pillar insists that there is a 'Grail' hidden within the pillar, specifically a silver platter. However, scans have been done of the pillar in the past, and nothing metal was detected, leading others to speculate that perhaps the 'Grail' hidden there is not made of metal. Some believe it is the 'mummified head of Christ' or a simple wooden chalice, but there is no proof of either of these, either. But again, until the pillar is actually dismantled, speculation is rife. However, this is extremely unlikely to ever happen, according to the current custodians of Rosslyn Chapel, The Rosslyn Chapel Trust, as they are responsible for overseeing the important, large scale preservation project of the chapel today.
The Apprentice Pillar also has a special legend associated with it, that of the 'murdered Apprentice'. The story goes like this, as told by the Earl of Rosslyn in the official guidebook:
The legend of the 'murdered apprentice' by his jealous master has been told from at least the 17th century at Rosslyn, if not before, and it also refers to a specific carving in the chapel by the same name.
The 'murdered apprentice' carving: Was it altered? And If so, why?
One of the most famous carvings at Rosslyn is called 'the murdered apprentice'. But some controversy still exists about it, as the famed 'murdered apprentice' carving may not have actually been the original design at all, as it appears to have been slightly 'altered' at some time in the past by person(s) unknown. This means that what is now called the 'murdered apprentice' carving may not have been the actual carving that was designed and approved by the founder of the chapel in 1446, Sir William St. Clair. Researcher Keith Laidler commented on what he was told in 1998 by the Scottish Templar historian Chev. Robert Brydon:
'But who would bother?', one may be tempted to think today. However, the carving genuinely does appear to have been changed in some way, leading some to ask: Did someone 'alter' one or more of the carvings at Rosslyn at some time in the past, carefully chiselling away some of their features? And, if so, why?
If they did, this would clearly alter the meaning of the carving as it was originally created by the founder, Sir William St. Clair, in the eyes of some. Who would have had the audacity to 'tamper' with his vision, as some have asked? This has only fuelled further speculation, such as: 'precisely who decided that the 'spin' would be the legend of a 'murdered apprentice' and not that of the original 'murdered master'? No one seems to know. Critics contend that it may not matter, anyway, while advocates say they simply want to know why it was altered and the beard chiselled off, to create an entirely different meaning to the carving in question. They say they only want the true vision of the founder to be clarified.
Perhaps the story of the original carving is more unique than we now realize. If it was actually altered, which it appears to have been, then, the story goes, obviously its 'message' upset someone enough in the past to go to such lengths to change it. Someone has 'demoted' the bearded Master down to the rank of a mere apprentice. However, as many medieval churches have worn or partly damaged carvings anyway, this may not be all that unusual in the long run. After all, this event must have happened a long, long time ago, so it is rather impossible to know for sure exactly what happened centuries later, it would seem.
Yet, controversy continues, with many pointing out that what we have here seems to be the skillful altering of certain characteristics of the carving, i.e., it has not been done in a haphazard way, which indicates that the individual(s) must have had expert knowledge of stone carving and a specific desire to make certain changes for an unknown reason. Regarding another carving in question, the 'Veil of Veronica', Laidler mentions additional comments to him by Chev. Brydon that the damage to it is "very specific, not done by accident....Someone has deliberately damaged parts of it for a reason." (¹) Again, who, when, and why?
The 'murdered apprentice' carving, according to Chev. Brydon, was very likely originally not that of an 'apprentice' at all, as in ancient and medieval times only Master masons were allowed to sport a full beard, which implies that the original carving was that of a 'murdered Master' and not a 'murdered apprentice'. The ancient theme of a 'murdered Master' builder killed by jealous colleagues is also familiar to Freemasons, as the legend of Hiram Abiff. This has prompted some to ask: Did the 'legend' of the 'murdered Master' at Rosslyn Chapel, built in 1446, pre-date the Masonic story of Hiram Abiff before the official founding of Freemasonry in 1717? If so, then what was the specific route of transmission? Could a medieval Guild, or a chivalric Order such as the Knights Templar, for example, possibly have had something to do with it? What about the medieval Edinburgh guild tradition of the Blue Blanket, as discussed in The Quest for the Celtic Key?
Perhaps chivalric and Masonic scholars can shed some more light on the controversy about this 'altered' carving in the future, as this is beyond the scope of this article. Masonic and other scholars are still debating these matters today. Many Masonic scholars state that the earliest known account of the Hiramic legend in Freemasonry did not appear until the 1730s, i.e., if true, this is some 284 years after Rosslyn Chapel was built. Also, it is known that the legend of a murdered master builder is not particularily unique to Rosslyn, as it is also found in Rouen Cathedral, for example. In fact, the theme of the sacrifice of master artificers at building sites goes back to much earlier times, so the legend in Rosslyn Chapel is actually representative of something far more ancient, it would appear.
More information about this and other unusual carvings at Rosslyn, such as the 'Veil of Veronica' and the 'Death Mask of Robert the Bruce', was presented in The Quest for the Celtic Key. Of course, many interpretations remain about specific carvings in Rosslyn, and much speculation continues. Many believe that 'the jury is still out' regarding the meaning of much of the symbolism, which also must be taken together as a whole in addition to specific analysis of any one individual carving. In fact, much of the genuine 'message' of Rosslyn Chapel is as much about 'where' a specific carving is located in the chapel -and how it relates to whatever else is around it -as much as the design of the specific carving itself. It is also often forgotten that much of the symbolism at Rosslyn is Old Testament or apocryphal-based, as well as pagan iconography, so a variety of symbols are there. 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. Little is there is by accident, as the founder took such great pains to ensure that his precise design was carried out exactly as he had envisioned it.
Rosslyn Chapel, Templar Wood and Roslin Glen
Often overlooked is the surrounding area around the chapel itself. There is a connection to the Templars in that only a few miles away is the village of Temple, the modern-day name for Balantradoch, the medieval headquarters of the Scottish Knights Templar. Contrary to popular belief, the headquarters of the medieval Scottish Knights Templar was not at Rosslyn Chapel, it was at Balantradoch (Temple). The ruined Temple church still stands there today. Also, 'Templar Wood' is nearby. This wood when viewed from ground level appears to be like any other woodland. However, when viewed from the air, it is very different, as it clearly displays what appears to be the splayed cross of the Knights Templar, which is quite similar to the 'engrailed cross' of the Sinclairs. The Sinclair cross is found in many places in Rosslyn Chapel, which one might expect. But although the 'Templar Wood' design was created after the time of the medieval Templars, it is symbolic.
Will there be an excavation?
Many theories abound about what may be hidden at Rosslyn Chapel, which has created a 'myth in the making' which has a life of its own. Unfortunately, this has also led to great speculation, some of which is patently ridiculous and has 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. Of course, it is possible that nothing at all may be hidden there amidst all the hype, as sceptics point out. However, many lingering questions remain, which begs the question: Will the vaults of Rosslyn Chapel ever be excavated? Or should they ever be opened at all? Perhaps they are best left alone, as a growing number believe. Others are adamant that if there is something there that has great importance to humanity—like the treasures of the temple of Jerusalem or the Holy Grail, for example—then the public at least has the right to know about it. So the debate continues.
On the other hand, one would think that this decision should be largely up to the Earl and his family for obvious reasons. In an effort to find some answers to these questions, the Director of Rosslyn Chapel Trust, Mr. Stuart Beattie, was asked about the excavation issue. He explains:
This basically means that as there are important burial sites located around the chapel, one cannot simply start 'digging up graves', so to speak. This is why there is a special law of the "Right of Sepulchre", so that graves and kirkyards will not be disturbed. Much important restoration work needs to be done on the chapel now, in order to save it from further damage and to protect it for posterity, Mr. Beattie says, adding that this must obviously be the first priority of The Rosslyn Chapel Trust. He says that perhaps at some future point, they may put forth a challenge to the legal hurdle of the "Right to Sepulchre" in order to obtain the proper legal permission that would be needed to begin a professional excavation.
But this is not likely to be any time soon, Mr. Beattie believes, as the emphasis is on the preservation of the building, which must come first. Funding is still being sought to complete this important work; more information about the preservation project can be obtained from the Rosslyn Chapel website, www.rosslynchapel.org.uk
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:
But speculation will undoubtedly continue as the conservation project will not be finished until at least 2010, so any excavation would occur after that.
Over the years the Guilds, the Templars, the Rosicrucians, and the Masons have all recognised something of their own mystery teaching in the complex allegory presented by Rosslyn Chapel. An arcanum, a book in stone....(¹)
Of interest to many today, including Christian ministers as well as Freemasons, modern-day chivalric Orders, Rosicrucians, judges, politicians, CEOs, and many seekers of Truth, Rosslyn Chapel continues to spark the imagination and intrigue many today. Yet many believe it still retains its special secrets, whatever they may be. Once known as the 'chapel in the woods', (¹) Rosslyn is officially known as the Collegiate Church of St. Matthew and is an active Scottish Episcopal church today, something that is unfortunately often overlooked today.
In any case, the chapel, castle and glen of Rosslyn are all certainly worth a visit. In 1998, HRH Prince Charles visited the Chapel and opened the new visitor's centre. Upstairs in the centre is the Rosslyn Chapel Museum exhibition, which features artefacts and regalia from the private family collection of Chev. Robert Brydon, featuring Templar, Guild, Masonic, Rosicrucian, Celtic and Gypsy items on display. Outside, one can walk through the beautiful glen, or visit the site of Rosslyn Castle nearby. Please take care to help preserve this extraordinary building and its premises for posterity, and whatever mysteries it may hold, its legacy must be respected by us today. Following in the paths of many Questers for truth in times gone by, you, too, may also share in this powerful legacy today.
Dr Karen Ralls
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