Rosslyn Chapel's extraordinary carvings explained at last

THE doors of Rosslyn Chapel have shut behind the cast and crew of The Da Vinci Code. But grail tourists will continue to travel to this place of 21st century pilgrimage and walk in the footsteps of the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail.

Behind all the fantastical nonsense there are lone voices asking us to put aside the hype, look inside the chapel and open our eyes to what it really is. They don't see heretic knights and ancient secrets but an important remnant of medieval architecture deserving of serious study that has been prostituted on the altar of commercialism.

Just in case you've been asleep (or abducted by aliens) you may need a quick re-cap on current "theories" re Rosslyn. Revisionist historians consider Rosslyn to be a grail chapel. Built by Sir William Sinclair in 1446 as a copy of the Temple of Solomon, its intricate carvings hint at secrets passed down to the family since the fall of the Templars in 1307. Depending on your inclination the chapel is the final resting-place for Jesus's head, Templar treasure or any number of outlandish ideas.

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According to the new book Rosslyn and the Grail by Mark Oxbrow and Ian Robertson, it is none of these things. The authors place the chapel firmly in its 15th century context and finally reveal the true meaning of the carvings. In doing so they seek to revisit the history of the Sinclair family and cast doubt on those who paint a 14th century William Sinclair as a Knight Templar."The Sinclairs were devout Catholics who were ruined by clinging to their Catholicism in the face of the reformation," says Oxbrow. "William Sinclair has been dead for (about) 700 years. There is no-one left to defend him, and to accuse him of being a Templar is appalling."

Sinclair was "exposed" as a Templar when his gravestone was found. It has been suggested that it is incontrovertibly Templar, featuring as it does a sword and a Templar rose. Oxbrow believes the people who came to this conclusion have forgotten their history, citing many similar gravestones connected to the Lords of the Isles. Furthermore, that the Templar "rose" is more likely to be a reference to the family saint of the Sinclairs, St Catherine and her eight-spoked wheel.

Having discarded the idea that the Sinclairs were Templars, the authors also aim to debunk the idea of Rosslyn as a place of intrigue. They hope that new revelations about the man they believe to be the secret architect will lead to a reappraisal of the chapel.

Sir Gilbert Hay was tutor the children of the Sir William who built Rosslyn (a descendant of the earlier William) and an exceedingly erudite man. He had spent 20 years in France, possibly fighting alongside Joan of Arc. Oxbrow is convinced that it was Hay, not Sinclair who oversaw most of the building work and that his hand is there in the carvings, if you only know where to look.

At the time Rosslyn was being built Hay was translating books on chivalry into Scots - for the very first time. He would also definitely have read books on Arthurian legend.

"Right through the medieval period Arthurian legends were popular," says Oxbrow. "They were not historical, but allegorical, the story was there to have a meaning or purpose."Like the Arthurian legends of dragons and knightly quests, Rosslyn was built to be read like a storybook. And like the grail stories of old, it would not have been hard for the local churchgoers to interpret the stories that it told.

Oxbrow and Robertson have spent 20 years investigating Rosslyn and think they've cracked the story. This means that for the first time since the Middle Ages we can now read the chapel as it was meant to be read.

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"It was the green men that gave us our first clue," explains Oxbrow. "They start off on the east side as young men, and then get progressively older as you travel round the church."Oxbrow believes that the chapel is quite simply the story of life in miniature. To begin the journey you need to face the two east windows, which are designed to catch the morning light. Opposite these windows are carved musicians, welcoming in the dawn. Facing them is the nativity scene. The whole east section of the chapel is concerned with the beginning of day, the start of life and spring. The green men here are young boys with single vine leaves entwined round their immature faces.

Shifting south the scene moves on towards the middle of the day, summer and the middle years of life. The foliage depicts harvest time, there are fruits in abundance. Here the green men are in the prime of life, verdant and lush. The biblical lesson is about gaining wisdom, with depictions of the seven deadly sins and the seven virtues.

Moving west and dusk falls. The scene is autumnal and the green men are ageing. The roof represents the canopy of the heavens with stars and moons. Finally, coming round to the north, the chapel hits winter, the end of the day and the end of life. The green men are skeletons; the biblical story is of the crucifixion. The north aisle is associated with death. It is no coincidence that the only two black slabs in the flooring are placed here. Beneath them a stone stairway leads to the crypt where the bodies of innumerable Sinclairs lie entombed in their armour.

The beauty and simplicity of the chapel still amazes Oxbrow, not least because it gives an insight into people's beliefs at the time.

"The whole chapel is completely straight forward," says Oxbrow. "If people continue to fictionalise history it's a bad thing, not least because the real stories are more interesting. Anything else about the Templars is just rubbish built on sand."

If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read:

Rosslyn, leylines and the baron knights

In search of the Holy Grail

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