The Da Vinci Connection
Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh has long been a source of mystery and legend, but with the success of Dan Browns The Da Vinci Code, the bestselling novel in which it features, visitor numbers are going through the roof. Peter Ross spends a day there to discover who is making the pilgrimage and why
14 November 2004
I GOT chilblains, theyre multiplying, and Im losing control of my bladder. Many outlandish claims have been made for Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian ? that it is home to the Holy Grail, to the mummified head of Jesus Christ, to a UFO ? but there is one fact I can report with certainty: it is cold; finger-numbingly, nose-reddeningly, pee-inducingly cold. There are plenty of heaters in the 15th-Century church, but they are not switched on, and it is no place to hang around for eight hours in winter. Yet this is exactly what I am doing, spending a day at Rosslyn, talking to those who make the pilgrimage, asking them why they have come and what they think now they are here.
On the day that I visit, November 5, Rosslyn receives 168 visitors, an astounding figure given the time of year, the relative remoteness of the location on a hill seven miles outside Edinburgh, and the low-key, low-tech nature of the tourist experience (the most interactive thing you can do here is pick choc chips out of your shortbread in the cafe). In 1995 Rosslyn attracted a total of 9800 visitors. Last year that figure had risen to 38,000. By the end of 2004 more than 60,000 people will have walked beneath the arched entrance. Clearly, something is going on.
That something is The Da Vinci Code. Im here today because two years ago a former schoolteacher in his mid-30s called Dan Brown paid a visit. He looked like any other American tourist so no one paid him any attention. He was paying attention though. Brown had Rosslyn in mind for the denouement of a novel he was writing. His contemporary thriller about a quest for the Holy Grail would begin with a murder in the Louvre then weave together elements from art history, codebreaking and heretical theories of Christianity. It would explore the notion that Christ and Mary Magdalene had a child, that their bloodline continued to the present day, the identities of their descendants protected by a group with links to the Knights Templar, a military and religious order formed in the 12th Century.
Two years on from Browns visit, The Da Vinci Code has sold 17 million copies, two million of them in Britain. It is a phenomenon responsible for Rosslyns steep rise in visitor numbers, and similar leaps in attendance at other real-life buildings featured in the book. Tour operators in France and America offer special Da Vinci trails taking in Paris, London and Rosslyn.
There are plans to adapt The Da Vinci Code for the screen, with Ron Howard to direct and either Russell Crowe or George Clooney to star; the Rosslyn scenes are likely to be filmed here, and when it is released in 2006, visitor numbers will soar. Before then, Tony Robinson is stopping by as part of a Channel 4 documentary, Songs of Praise plan to record here, and Disney are to film at Rosslyn for an extra on the DVD of National Treasure, their forthcoming movie which deals with the Knights Templar.
But there is no sign of Hollywood buzz about Rosslyn, or the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew to use its proper name, when I arrive. It is quarter to ten in the morning and the place is still closed. All is silence. Then, at three minutes to the hour, a coach pulls up and 50 tourists, mostly men, snake their way into the Chapel. Its a party of Freemasons from France. Freemasons claim a connection to the Knights Templar and believe the Chapel is packed with Masonic symbolism.
A tour guide in a tartan hat tells the Freemasons, The Da Vinci Code is a good story. But its not true.” They wander around, jostling for position as they examine the carvings which coat the interior like architectural eczema. These are remarkable, reputed to include symbols from every world religion. I spot stars and flowers, demons, dragons and the seven deadly sins. Also corn-on-the-cob and cacti, American plants in a building founded almost 50 years before Columbus discovered the new world.
Later in the day, the novelist Denise Mina, here to make a documentary for the BBC, will joyfully show me a carving of a man having a poo. The look of strain on his face is not unlike that of some of the French Freemasons. Rosslyn is surprisingly small and can be a tight squeeze when a lot of people arrive at once, especially as the intricacy of the carving demands visitors spend a decent amount of time here. It must have been jam-packed in August when they were getting more than 500 people a day.
We run a business to fund conservation work, so the extra money from extra visitors is good news,” says Stuart Beattie, project manager for the Rosslyn Trust, which looks after the building. But the Chapel is only 68 feet by 34 by 40 high inside, and its not getting any bigger, so there are challenges when you get visitors which are more in number than perhaps you can cope with. We havent quite reached that number yet, I dont think. There is a long-term danger, of course, and we are thinking about that. But its not at the point where we have to take dramatic action.”
At the opposite end of the building from the French party, a young couple sit quietly in what is known as the Lady Chapel. You can see the breath in front of their faces, a humble act of transubstantiation compared to the elaborate miracles associated with this part of Rosslyn. According to Jackie Queally of Celtic Trails tour company (www.celtictrails.co.uk), a major ley line ? part of the sacred geometry of the ancient world ? runs straight through the Lady Chapel down to Glastonbury and beyond into Spain.
I approach the couple, Jeffrey Phillips and Jasmine Edmonds. They spent all of yesterday here and have popped in again before travelling back to London. Weve come to Rosslyn because this is the Holy Grail place,” says Phillips, a medium who works in spiritualist churches. Weve read the books and now were trying to find clues for ourselves. The Knights Templar tried to find it in their day; were trying to find it in our day. Were trying to discover certain secrets. Were trying to use our intuition.”
They would love to put the actual chalice of Christ on the mantelpiece, but will settle for spiritual enlightenment. Rosslyn is the first stop on their journey. Next week they are going to Glastonbury Abbey and then perhaps to France. They arent here because of The Da Vinci Code, which makes them an exception. I speak to about a third of all visitors to Rosslyn on November 5, and the vast majority have read Dan Browns novel. Most seem a little sheepish when they admit this, as if they feel they should be here for higher reasons. Theres a reluctance to even say the words Da Vinci Code”; they say the book” or that book”.
People have come from all over. I speak to a Christian from Thailand, a pagan from Tasmania and an engineer from Tanzania. A glance through recent pages of the visitor book reveals further nationalities. Its brilliant!” writes Rebecca Green of Hampson Crescent, England, the world, the universe. The truth is in here!” Meanwhile, someone claiming to be Johnny Depp from Los Angeles is moved to record that he found Rosslyn nice”.
Recently a couple arrived from South Africa on a Friday and flew back on the Monday without visiting anywhere other than the Chapel. The compulsive quality inherent in the carving reflects an obsessiveness among Rosslyn enthusiasts. Occasionally this spills over into actual mania. A couple of years ago, a man burst into the gift shop, declaring, Give me a match and I will burn the debts of the world!” He was later discovered placing morning rolls and candles on the altar in the crypt, and slept for a number of weeks in a nearby cave.
It is hardly surprising that most visits to Rosslyn are prompted by The Da Vinci Code. Although it is clearly fiction, Dan Brown claims in a foreword that, All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” He also uses a confident narrative voice throughout, asserting that the Chapel was built on the site of an ancient Mithraic temple by the Knights Templar, and that the Rosslyn Trust offer a reward to anyone who can decode the symbolism of one particular archway. Most controversially, the narrator claims there is a massive subterranean chamber” beneath the Chapel, marked on the floor with the Star of David, which once contained the secret of the Holy Grail.
Most people, of course, can easily discern between fact and fiction, but when you sell 17 million copies of a book, some of those who buy it are going to get overexcited. A few days before my visit, one Chinese tourist went rushing into the gift shop, breathlessly announcing that he had found the Grail. He led Rosslyn staff back into the Chapel and down into the crypt where he proudly pointed to his find ? a flower vase in an alcove.
Mark Oxbrow, whose forthcoming book Rosslyn And The Grail sets out to debunk the various legends, worries that all this excitement is obscuring the historic significance of the Chapel.
I think its a shame that the public are getting a fiction that people are making up really sloppily, rather than the true story,” he says. There are amazing things about the carving that are unique, and it would all have made sense had you walked into it in the 1400s, 1500s. People would have known what the symbols meant. Rosslyn has become secret because weve forgotten the meanings. Studying the Chapel is a really good opportunity to get yourself inside the head of someone who lived 500 years ago, and thats genuinely fascinating and incredible.”
The Rosslyn Trust is in an interesting position as regards this. They dont want the historical truth of the building to become obscured by myth, but they need to raise over ￡3 million to conserve the building (since 1997 a steel structure has been erected over Rosslyn to help the stone roof dry out) and must therefore welcome visitors regardless of their motives and enthusiasms. So they try to stay neutral about why Rosslyn was built and what it all means. And they are not shy about exploiting the competing theories ? the gift shop sells copies of The Da Vinci Code, Templar-related books and a Freemasonry glossary of terms in which one learns that h” is for hoodwink”. Or you might settle for a ￡40 replica of the famous Apprentice Pillar, which according to legend was completed by a trainee stonemason who was killed in the Chapel by his master in a fit of jealous rage.
As the day wears on, the crowds thin a little, although there is still the regular flash-beep of cameras. I speak to Trevor Pritchard from Edinburgh, who has read The Da Vinci Code and Simon Coxs Cracking The Da Vinci Code (I decided to visit while it was all hot in my head”), Brigid Bedard from Canada (Theres a sinister feeling, a little unsettling”) and the Hamilton family, up from Manchester for a family funeral, who are visiting Rosslyn for some quiet remembrance. Whenever I go to one of these really old buildings I think of how much time and effort they put in,” says Iain Hamilton. Compare that with how they build a Tesco today.”
At noon, Richard Broadhurst leads a congregation of 12 in prayer. Rosslyn is still a working church, now Episcopal although originally Catholic. There are those who look at the imagery in the carving ? particularly the 103 Green Men, human faces with foliage sprouting from the nose and mouth ? and declare that this is barely a Christian church at all; indeed Tim Wallace-Arnold, whose book Rosslyn: Guardian Of The Secrets Of The Holy Grail is on the online bibliography for The Da Vinci Code, relates a local saying that if you are in Rosslyn Chapel you are nearer to heaven or hell than anywhere else on else.”
Richard Broadhurst doesnt believe that. Some people might be looking for things that others dont believe are here,” he says, but to me this is absolutely a Christian place of worship and the result of a thanksgiving by the man who built it.”
Rosslyn was founded in 1446 by William St Clair, a Prince of Orkney. He planned it as part of a larger building in the shape of a cross but died in 1484 before completion. It is often said St Clair was a grandmaster of the Knights Templar, and that he constructed Rosslyn as a repository for religious relics brought from Jerusalem and as a book in stone” which would enshrine Templar ideals in its carving. However, according to Mark Oxbrow, the St Clair (later Sinclair) family had a real serious dislike” for the Templars, and even testified against them at their trial in Edinburgh in 1309. This direct conflict of opinion is typical of Rosslyn, which Stuart Beattie says tends to have at least three answers for every question”.
Fretting over who owns the truth about Rosslyn is a constant in my interviews. Jim Munro, an expert in the Masonic symbols, says, People are coming to Rosslyn for the wrong reason: to crack the Da Vinci Code. I sometimes get the feeling that they come here and look but dont see anything.” Steven Campbell, the Scottish painter who has referred to Rosslyn in his recent work, says, They come along in their droves. Its an upper middle class thing. People feel that this is part of the trail, that its something to tick off.”
The people I speak to certainly seem enthused, although Jeanette Malcolm from Glasgow is having difficulty with some of the more worn carvings. See that dark bit of stone? Thats supposed to be the death mask of Robert the Bruce. I cant see that at all.”
Others dismiss the significance of the carvings altogether. Donald Ferguson, a local architect is here with his sister, Lee, who stays in Sicily. Shes never seen anything like Rosslyn in her life, but he says, I reckon its just a bunch of masons having a bloody good time! The public dont realise how much of a good time builders have on an interesting, well-paid job.”
I sit on a pew and watch as the last stragglers wander round the Chapel, photographing each other in front of the Apprentice Pillar using mobile phones then heading off into the night. One of the Chapel staff enters and begins to clean the carvings with a brightly coloured feather duster. Its almost 5pm, closing time.
The final visitors of the day are seated in a pew in front of me, praying. I talk to one of them, Andi Vincent, as he leaves. He and his wife Sheenagh have moved to the area from Blackhall in Edinburgh. Ever since he was a child he has wanted to live near Rosslyn. It means a lot to me,” he says. Spiritually it has given me so much. Im a composer and it gives me so many ideas.” He plans to release a CD of ten piano preludes based on Rosslyn, and one day hopes to decipher the musical notation within the carving. Rosslyn doesnt look very inviting from outside,” he says. You get a feeling of Keep away!’ But inside theres a lovely feeling of warmth.”
That says it all, really. Rosslyn Chapel is a kind of reverse Room 101 where you will find whatever you most desire. That might be clues to the location of the Holy Grail, an amusing carving of a man at stool, or even, rarest of all, just a place to take the chill from your bones on a dreich November eveningu
Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Midlothian is open Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm and on Sunday, noon-4.45pm, ￡5/￡4, children under 18 free. For details log on to www.rosslynchapel.org