Monday, August 13, 2012

Rosslyn and the Infamous Clamshell

On one of our last days in Scotland, we were graciously accompanied past the outskirts of Edinburgh, into the green rolling hills of Scotland, to a very curious little church in the middle of nowhere. Our destination: Rosslyn Chapel.

Now, perhaps you have heard of this tiny little church. It is the place, infamously, where Dan Brown concludes his mildly successful (!) novel, The DaVinci Code. I'm not going to comment on any of that (save for the amazement that so many people could get worked up over what was admittedly a work of fiction). Yet it is a fascinating place, and there were a few memories of the visit that bear repeating, if only to muse over them with a sense of wonder.

Entering this tiny chapel, the sense of architectural mystery is tangible. Patterns of flowers, stars and lilies, all carved from stone, adorn the ceiling. And yet, hidden within these patterns are all kinds of surprises: Christ, holding up a hand of blessing; or a little green man, sprouting vines out of his head and his mouth; or the image of the sun and the moon, tucked into the carefully aligned shapes. It is a palette of images, seemingly unrelated, with only conjecture and hints to somehow link them all together.

We walked around a bit, and then found out that a talk on the Chapel would be given at two o'clock. And who would miss that, given the trove of mystery we had just encountered?

So after lunch, we headed back. And we were greeted by this bespeckled, diminutive docent, an elderly woman who seemed to be about as old as the place itself. She pointed out some of the more fascinating and obvious legends about the Chapel, one of which concerns the Mason's and the Apprentice's Pillars.

These two works in stone are found on either side of the sanctuary. The Apprentice's Pillar is a jaw-dropping masterpiece in stone, surrounded by a legend of malice and pride. Our elderly guide told us a story of the chapel mason who journeyed to Rome, wanting to find a way to carve an elaborate, circular pillar. But upon his return, he found that the apprentice had actually created the work. And the mason, full of rage, killed his apprentice.

Then our docent pointed her laser pen to the opposite end of the chapel: a face was there, in stone, of a man filled with sinister rage. "It is the mason," she said. "And now, from here, he can look at the Apprentice's handiwork for all eternity."


Drama, murder, everlasting angst... All artfully contained in a church nave. No wonder historians and novelists alike were drawn to the place!

But our elderly docent had a few more surprises in store before her talk was over. My ears perked up when she started talking of a symbol we'd been encountering often on our journey: the image of the clamshell, signifying the route of a pilgrim.

"Tradition has it," said the aged docent, "that Rosslyn is the seventh church along the ancient road of the pilgrims, of which Compostela was only a part. And each church was associated with a planet... which means Rosslyn was associated with Saturn."

Then her voice took on a mysterious timbre, and she said, almost as if she were speaking to another age, "and, unfortunately, the god Saturn is also the god of secrets. So we can surmise that very much is hidden here."

Heck, after a talk like that, this little old lady could've told me that Santa Claus was hidden under the altar and I would've believed her.

Rosslyn Chapel was the last church we encountered on our three month long pilgrimage. It was a church of mystery, a church with deep roots in the process of sacred journey, a place that holds securely the secrets of mystic associations between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity. A portal, of sorts, to what awaits us.

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Location:Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin (outside of Edinburgh), Scotland

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