Secrets in the stone
To anyone familiar with the rites of Freemasonry, this carving bears a remarkable similarity to a Masonic initiation ceremony. But if Alan Butler and John Ritchie, the authors of Rosslyn Revealed, are correct, the resemblance is anything but coincidental.
Rosslyn has long been associated with Freemasonry, a worldwide secret society thought to have originated among the guilds of medieval craftsmen. But Butler and Ritchie believe the connection between Rosslyn and Freemasonry is more dramatic than anyone previously suspected - arguing that the beliefs of Freemasonry were first formulated by the stonemasons who built Rosslyn. They believe the chapel was not simply a reflection of the philosophy of Freemasonry, but its original inspiration.
In Rosslyn Revealed, they claim the beliefs of Freemasonry are rooted in the Ebionite philosophy of Sir William Sinclair and Gilbert Haye, creators of Rosslyn Chapel. Ebionites denied the divinity of Jesus Christ and exalted John the Baptist.
Ritchie says: "Ebionites did not believe in a hierarchical church. They believed every individual was unique and had their own relationship with God. They believed in the betterment of mankind and in man the artist. Freemasons also believe in the betterment of mankind, in education and the individual - we believe Rosslyn was the origin of that philosophy."
The authors believe that Haye, a polymath and former chancellor at the French court, came to Scotland because it had a reputation for independent thinking. The book argues that the master masons who came to Midlothian from across Europe to build the chapel between 1456 and 1496 became, in effect, the first Freemasons. The secretive nature of the craft, they say, was forged at Rosslyn, through rituals and ceremonies devised by Haye and Sinclair - linked closely to the beliefs of the Ebionites.
The carvings of Rosslyn are unlike those of a normal church because they reflect Ebionite symbolism rather than the more mainstream Christian tradition.
Ebionism had its origins in a pre-Christian mystery tradition and incorporated beliefs and symbols from Judaism, Islam and Egyptian and Persian traditions. Butler and Ritchie believe Sinclair and Haye enshrined these beliefs and symbols in the very fabric of Rosslyn - to ensure they were understood by future generations.
Many believe some of the leading figures of the Renaissance may have been Ebionites. But the sect, with its emphasis on individuality, was a threat to the hierarchical beliefs of the established church.
When Sinclair and Haye gathered the finest stonemasons in Europe to build Rosslyn, they paid them well. To ensure they kept quiet about the role of Ebionism and the mystical symbolism incorporated into the design of the chapel, Ritchie and Butler believe they swore their workers to secrecy by forming them into a society - binding them together with oaths, ceremonies and terrifying threats; the very roots of Freemasonry.
Ritchie says: "As it turns out, Rosslyn is far more important to Freemasonry than we thought. In fact, Freemasonry owes its very existence to the chapel."
In Rosslyn Revealed, the authors say: "The earl was faced with a problem. How would it be possible to pass on knowledge of the timeless truths carved into the walls of the chapel without divulging its secrets to the world at large and thereby bringing retribution down on his own head and that of his children [because Ebionites were viewed as heretics]? The creation of Freemasonry was his response."
Ironically, when the authors first embarked on their research almost ten years ago, they were sceptical about the chapel's supposed links with Freemasonry. Many of the carvings inside the chapel with supposed Masonic links were actually added in 1871, when the chapel was extensively restored - and Butler and Ritchie are convinced that the carving which visitors to the chapel are told is of the apprentice who built the so-called Apprentice Pillar, linked to a well-known Masonic legend, is actually the defaced image of an apostle.
However, they admit they were wrong. Ritchie says: "This is something which is so typical of Rosslyn. Every time you think you have worked things out, it throws up something which completely takes you by surprise."
While it might seems incredible to associate a tiny chapel in Midlothian with the very creation of a secret brotherhood which spread worldwide and played an important role in the creation of the American constitution, the link between Freemasonry with the Sinclair family is clear.
The earliest known Freemason lodge, Lodge 0, was recorded at Kilwinning in Ayrshire in 1598 and was associated with a Tironesian Abbey on Sinclair land. The oldest written records of Freemasonry are found in Scotland and the Sinclairs of Roslin were hereditary Grand Masters of Scottish Freemasonry.
The authors found a compelling piece of evidence in the "first degree tracing board" of Freemasonry, which shows three pillars, just like those at the front of the nave in Rosslyn Chapel. The pillar on the right, which is the most ornate, represents beauty and stands in the same place as the Apprentice Pillar - which has long been associated with Masonic legend.
Much of the metaphor found in theoretical Freemasonry, which was to become so powerful and widespread around the world, is based on different styles of architecture and stone craft.
And one of the most curious facts about Rosslyn Chapel is that it contains examples of many different styles of architecture. Ritchie says: "It has examples of every kind of arch and window that were available at the time. It is like a guide book, an instruction book for the guild."
Astronomy, in particular the planet Venus, has an important role in Masonic ritual and Ritchie and Butler believe Rosslyn was used as an observatory from which to chart the movements of Venus.
While the beliefs of Freemasonry have changed and been embellished over the years, the authors believe they have their core origins in the Ebionite belief systems incorporated into the design of Rosslyn. They write: "At the heart of Freemasonry we still find imperatives critically important to William Sinclair and Gilbert Haye. These include a deep reverence for John the Baptist, an enduring belief in justice, equality and fraternity, a reverence for the Noahide Laws of ancient Judaism and a recognition for that all-important part of the year around the autumn equinox.
"The same heady cocktail of Old Testament legend, Ebionite Christianity, mystery rite religion and a reverence for the human sprit that was personified by the 15th-century Sinclairs was passed directly to Freemasonry and in part survives with the craft to this day."
While the Masonic angels inside the chapel are undoubtedly a piece of Victorian fancy, the Masonic initiate on the outside of the building may well have been the first of his kind.
Once again, the facts about Rosslyn Chapel may well prove to be even more extraordinary than the fiction. In the book, Butler and Ritchie write: "Long after interest in The Da Vinci Code has waned, Freemasons from around the world will still be making their way to Rosslyn Chapel. And that is how it should be, because without this extraordinary building Freemasonry would never have existed. Rosslyn Chapel is without any doubt the oldest and most important of all Freemasonic temples."
• Find out more about the authors' investigations at www.rosslynrevealed.com
Apprentice Pillar: nothing is as it appears
VISITORS to Rosslyn Chapel have always been fascinated by the so-called Apprentice Pillar, the mediaeval masterpiece at the right of the altar. At the foot of the pillar are the dragons of Yggdrasil and twined around the column is an everlasting vine which links all the ornate carvings in the chapel.
The legend told to visitors is that this pillar was carved by an apprentice in his master's absence - and that when the master saw its beauty, he murdered its creator.
Many have doubted the story. Early accounts speak of the Prince's Pillar, and the carving said to be the head of the apprentice shows signs of being roughly modified to make it seem like a young man.
Butler and Ritchie believe the pillar represents the tree of life, the mystical symbol found in the Jewish text known as the Kabbalah, which shows the connection of Heaven and Earth.
But they also found a strong link between the design of the pillar and the tale of St Matthew's staff. In the biblical story, Matthew, right, doubts Jesus and is told to plant his staff in the ground.
In the Bible story, the staff grows into a great tree, with "a vine twisted around it and honey coming from above" - and from the base of the tree springs a source of water and "creatures that creep and crawl".
Like everything at Rosslyn Chapel, this is not as it seems. The authors believe the association with St Matthew's staff was a cover story, to distract attention from the profusion of strange and rather un-Christian carvings covering the chapel walls.
And, while the story of St Matthew's staff is a conventional Bible story, it is also a link to a surviving Hebrew gospel, in which John the Baptist is exalted as a prophet.
Nothing is as it appears at Rosslyn. When investigations were carried out around the chapel in the 1980s, it was discovered that foundations for a much bigger building had been laid. Even today, Rosslyn looks curiously unfinished from the outside but, in the authors' view, this was done deliberately to keep the prying eyes of the bishops away from the interior of the church.
As they say, there is still much to be discovered and "what rites and secret services once took place in the chapel at night when the shutters were safely barred may remain forever a mystery to all of us".
But the miraculously preserved carvings reveal a world which encompassed Judaism, Eastern mysticism, and images clearly from China - and even possibly from America. "We can be certain that no single overriding religious belief dominates in this sacred spot," they write. "There is something for every believer here, in what was clearly intended to be a compendium of religious and philosophical thought."
1 You don't have to be a Christian to be a Freemason. However, Masons do believe in a "supreme being". Masonic rituals refer to the creator of the world as the "divine architect".
2 The fraternity of Freemasonry uses the metaphor of a stonemason's tools and crafts to describe an esoteric system of morality.
3 The square and compass is the key symbol of Freemasonry. Some believe it is a metaphor for the need for moral responsibility balanced by reason.
4 There are three degrees of Freemasonry, each of which is accompanied by ritual around which there is great secrecy. Freemasons begin as Apprentice, and progress to Master then Grand Master.
5 Freemasons are sworn to secrecy when they become a member of a lodge, but identify themselves to each other using special handshakes, signs and code words.
6 Freemasons and the Catholic Church have never had an easy relationship. The current Pope, above, issued a decree saying the craft was "irreconcilable with the doctrine of the church".
7 The secrecy and oaths of loyalty of Freemasonry have brought it under suspicion from conspiracy theorists. In an episode of The Simpsons, Mr Burns hallucinates and sees talking flies saying: "Freemasons rule the world."
8 Around 200,000 Freemasons were exterminated in Nazi Germany.
9 John the Baptist, left, is the patron saint of Freemasons. His Saint's Day falls on 24 June - the summer solstice.
10 Scotland has the earliest recorded Freemason lodge in the world and also the lodge with the earliest written records. Robert Burns was a dedicated mason and made useful contacts at lodges in Edinburgh.