It was a huge cathedral the St. Clairs intended to build, close by their castle, on Roslin’s lovely glenside. 15th century Rosslyn Chapel is a truncated version of the planned cathedral — really just the part called the ‘choir’. Circumstances –medieval politics, Henry VIII, battles, shortage of cash, — the usual obstacles, led to a reduced project and to the existence of a chapel rather than a cathedral.
Rosslyn is exactly the right size. Its 40 feet dome seems to soar above its modest 68’ by 33’ footprint. One writer said of Rosslyn: ‘a poem of stone powered by stars.’ Indeed. Look up. Imagine. A scatter of stars incised in the stone ceiling. A notional cosmos.
Liz and I are returnees from Canada. It was stone that brought us back to Europe from the New World. We say it is ‘age’ we miss, but east to west, north to south, our planet is of one age. It is stone we miss. Stone taken from its quarries, pulled by beasts, rolled on wooden poles, lifted by levers and by ropes and pulleys, stood up, or stacked up, so as to decrease the distance between human kind and the stars, to announce the presence of humanity and its intention to abide here for countless millennia. Forever.
One writer has called Rosslyn ‘a bible in stone.’ The Creation, The Fall, Exile and Exodus, Retribution and Reconciliation, Prophecy Fulfilled, all that and more are carved on its walls and pillars. But Rosslyn is also an historical reliquary, a botanical primer, a chapter in the annals of myth and magic. An angel plays bagpipes. The Green Man responds. His mouth is open wide to allow a tangle of vines to grow out and creep green life over all dead things. Grotesque faces, bird and beast, fish and tree all exist in stone-worked joyous fusion.
Stone is durable. Stone will be here when I am a margin note in someone’s family history project, or a social or health statistic in an ancient electronic record. Between now and the end of time stones will bear witness to the continuity of our tribe, our desire to transcend our puny insignificant selfhood, and exist beyond our natural life span.
Rosslyn is like the womb, the dark cave of conception, Jung’s primordial swamp where we receive our birthright, the archetypal images: mother, wizard, holy child, devil, lover, air, fire, water and earth, the ideas that allow us to recognize the universe and our place within it.
Rosslyn is a popular tourist destination. The Da Vinci Code, novel and film are set in Rosslyn. The thesis of the story is bunkum, but restoration and preservation work on this venerable and irreplaceable treasure have hinged on commercial traffic. In the shop, you can buy a plaster cast of the Green Man for £20, books of Rosslyn history and lore for less than £10 and (sugar lovers) for only 50p you can have a wrapped Rosslyn (Scottish) tablet bar.
Rosslyn is a home to the Scottish Episcopalian Church. We celebrated the Eucharist within walls made holy by the liturgy and a gathering of the faithful. The sanctuary was candle lit, winter sun shot though Victorian stained glass, the organ piped, we sang the advent hymns. As the service closed more than two dozen children streamed through the door some carrying musical instruments. They were to rehearse their Kris Kringle musical offerings for a later performance. But for now, the 2nd Sunday in Advent 2012, the service is over.