Dan Brown may have brought this chapel into popular culture in his book “The Da Vinci Code”, but this chapel was famous in its own right long before that. Rosslyn Chapel has been loved for both its amazing decorative artwork as well as the mystery that surrounds it by people for decades.
Located 45 minutes outside of Edinburgh, Rosslyn Chapel, properly named the Collegiate Church of St. Matthew, was founded on a small hill near Rosslyn Castle in the mid-15th century. The chapel was founded by William Sinclair of the Sinclair family, a noble family descended from Norman knights who moved to Scotland when they fell out with William the Conqueror in the 11th century.
The purpose of the church was to celebrate the Holy Mass for all the faithfully departed, including the deceased members of the Sinclair family. It was thought that a fast ticket into heaven was to have people constantly praying for your soul. The Sinclairs did what many wealthy families did – they built the church in hopes of winning points with the guy upstairs. After the Scottish Reformation, Roman Catholic worship in the Chapel was brought to an end, although the Sinclair family continued to be Roman Catholics until the early 18th century.
The chapel is quite small. It was originally built to be a full style Gothic cathedral in the shape of a cross, but when William Sinclair died, his son stopped construction, closed up the “top”, and made that the chapel. Though small, the chapel is filled with stunning architecture and sculptures that you normally wouldn’t think would belong. In this Catholic church, you’ll find Pagan fertility gods, supposed Masonic imagery, upside-down devils, biblical reliefs, references to Norse mythology, and the death mask of Robert the Bruce – all pretty unusual stuff for a Gothic church. You can spend hours looking over all the reliefs, statues, and images. They are fascinating. The most fascinating one is the American maize (corn), which was not discovered at the time this church was built. Over one of the windows, there is clearly maize, leading many people to theorize the Sinclairs had contact with North America years before Columbus did. (Though that isn’t exactly revolutionary as it’s well documented that Columbus was not the first person to discover America.)
Yet what intrigues people about this place is the mystery that surrounds it and the mysterious connections of the family. Because of the family’s connection to the Knights Templar (and the stone that says “Knight Templar” in the church), it has long been theorized that much of the imagery in the church has some secret meaning and that the mysterious treasure of the Templars is actually buried underneath in the church’s vaults. Yet no one knows for sure. The Sinclairs did support the Templars, and there is obvious Templar and Masonic imagery in the church, though some of it might have been added later. What keeps the mystery alive is that the family has kept silent over the centuries about what is in the vault, leading many to theorize they are hiding something.
After the “Da Vinci Code” movie, thousands of people came here every day looking to find some truth in the story, and thousands of people walked away disappointed. But whether you believe in the Da Vinci and Templar theories or not, this church is still an interesting place to visit. The intricacy of the architecture will leave you captivated and breathless. And when you are finished with the church, you can walk around the surrounding hills and visit ruins of the old castle, which is an equally good treat.
A visit out here is a full day from Edinburgh and one that should not be missed by anyone. You can take a local bus from the city and it will drop you off right in front of the entrance to both the church and castle ruins.
Photo credit: 2