Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Rosslyn Chapel - A Treasure in Stone

Over the weekend I was reminded of a fabulous trip I made a few years ago - I was delivering a Birdbath in Edinburgh and afterwards met my mother who took me to see the amazing Rosslyn Chapel.  It was all brought back by the programme on Sunday evening - telling the story of the building and its significance.

I loved that the story was told by the BBC Four's Rosslyn Chapel: A Treasure in Stone with plenty emphasis on the masons and craftsmen who actually did the carving, and research done into who they were and what being a stone carver was at that time.

The Chapel was founded in 1446 by Sir William St Clair and took forty years to complete.  Sir William wanted the very best artisans and craftsmen and the masons were responsible for building their own village - a house and land for each carver.  His workers were highly valued,  master masons earned £40 yearly (equivalent to £50,000 today), and all other masons £10 each year.  But there was a lot of work to do.   Within the Chapel there is an abundance of sculpture and decoration - carving on carving - a great deal of which is given to plants and animals and the green man image (over 100), it is bursting with plant images and beds of foliage intricately carved onto its ten thousand stones.  The exquisite Rosslyn Chapel is a masterpiece in stone.

Of course extracting stone in medieval times was no mean feat, it took dozens of men and many months to excavate from a nearby quarry.   Each block would be squared and shaped and then the designs carved - each finished piece matching the next in a masterful flow of twists and scrolls.  Throughout there are the 'mason's marks' in the stone, simple shapes carved to signify who was responsible for that particular work, and evidence of completion so they could be paid.

Image from Rosslyn Chapel

This pillar provides one of the most dramatic stories locked into the history of Rosslyn’s carvings. It is said that an apprentice mason carved the pillar in his master’s absence. The master mason had gone to research the original pillar on which this was to be based, before attempting his masterpiece. But when he returned to see that his young apprentice had already carved what he himself had not managed to, he flew into a jealous rage and struck the apprentice over the head, killing him outright.

The faces of the mason, the apprentice, and his grieving mother are carved into the corners of the Chapel opposite the pillar. But the Apprentice Pillar is also significant because of the eight carved dragons winding around its base. In Scandinavian mythology eight dragons live at the roots of the Yggdrasil tree, an ash tree which bound together heaven, earth and hell with its branches.

There is an angel playing pipes, and the most beautiful nativity scene too, which I must show you as we're at Christmas time.

Star of Bethlehem and the Nativity

This hanging boss encompasses the eight-pointed Star of Bethlehem carved with figures of the nativity. Clockwise around its sides are the Virgin and child; the manger; the three wise men; and three shepherds.

Oh, please allow me one more - this is a farmer's wife saving her goose from the jaws of a fox!


  1. amazing the work those artisans did back then.

  2. Hi - A very nice post about such beautiful work. It's so interesting that the stonemasons' marks helped them get paid. I didn't know that. I read somewhere that workers left a hole in the stonework so that bees could make a hive high up in the chapel.

  3. Thanks all - what a magical place. Joe, bee hives were found - the discovery was made when two pinnacles, which had been made unstable by nesting jackdaws, had to be taken down stone by stone and rebuilt. The bees entered the hive through a hole in a carved flower, behind which was a large hollow. These hives were never intended to be a source of honey. They were there purely to protect the bees from inclement weather. What nuances and secrets the stonework reveals!


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