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Rosslyn Chapel restored

A Riddle Called Rosslyn

After 16 years of work, Rosslyn Chapel – long a magnet for symbologists,
Freemasons, Holy Grail hunters, pagans, conspiracy theorists and
architectural historians – has been restored to its full glory.

BY CANDACE LESLIE

Before visiting Rosslyn Chapel, I read a bit about it being a mystical, magical place, rife with legend and speculation. I looked forward to hearing a few tales while exploring the myriad stone carvings, the puzzling pillars and the ornate architecture. I thought I would surely learn where the truth lay in the few conflicting accounts of that curious church. Or was it just a church? Was Rosslyn really a shrine for the head of a saint? Or the hiding place of the Holy Grail? Did the carvings that looked like Indian corn prove that the chapel’s founders had been to the New World before Columbus? Was a gifted apprentice actually murdered by his jealous master? And where did the Templars fit into the history? Is there still a hidden vault where knights lie buried? Was there even a modicum of truth in Dan Brown’s brief references in The Da Vinci Code?

Little did I know that I would come away with little clear validation of the countless theories that Rosslyn Chapel has set in motion through the centuries. Director Ian Gardner assured me that it is impossible to see most things conclusively. "Many of the theories might be right," he said, "but there is no way to prove them." Yet, I was still tempted to try and set things straight when I returned home and began digging.

It was not to be. What I had imagined would be a simple task kept drawing me deeper and deeper into Rosslyn's countless enigmas. I read authors who convincingly claimed the last word, and other believers who debunked every assertion with equal conviction. So I kept going. If such a pull into searches for truth was part of Rosslyn's magic, then I was bewitched, indeed.

At the same time, I knew that none of this mattered nearly as much as the enchanted time I had spent within the walls of this medieval wonder. The truest and most verifiable miracles were the very creation of the chapel and that it had remained remarkably intact for almost six centuries. Despite brutal Scottish weather, the risk of Reformation destruction, Cromwell's horses, and long periods of neglect and faulty restoration attempts, Rosslyn Chapel has been a survivor.

On an October morning, I traveled the seven miles from Edinburgh to the ancient village of Roslin by bus. (Roslin was likely established for the workers who built the chapel.) A short walk through the autumn mist offered an almost ghost-like approach to the intriguing structure with its crown of stone spires pointing heavenward. Considered small by medieval chapel standards (nearly 42 feet high and 69 feet long), its ornate splendor more than compensates for its size. Even on the outer walls, the weathered handiwork of stonemasons and carvers deserved a close look. But nothing could have prepared me for the visual feast that awaited within the glorious building. Almost every surface is alive with stone carvings, many Biblically inspired, others related to pagan beliefs, and still others that continue to fuel colorful, if conflicting, interpretations. And where the art is not representational, there are beautiful, fanciful complex designs, the works of master carvers. One hanging boss alone recalls the story of Jesus’ nativity with Virgin and child, manger, shepherds and wise men. A horned Moses holds a stone tablet of the Ten Commandments. The pre-Christian Green Man, with leaves and vines sprouting from his mouth, appears around 100 times, showing his aging from youth to death through the seasons. One arch is decorated with a strange collection of stone cubes that a team of musicians has interpreted as musical notes. There are scenes from daily life, such as the woman rescuing a goose from a fox, angels with bagpipes and fanciful creatures -- lions, birds, snakes and dragons as well as a wild variety of plants and foliage.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2014 issue of Scottish Life.

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