Prying in the chapel…how Rosslyn coped with Da Vinci

For the congregation and staff of the ancient Rosslyn Chapel it has been, by any standard, an extraordinary year. Thanks to the publishing sensation that is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the 15th century chapel, which sits along a rough track beside the small Midlothian village of Roslin, has become a place of literary pilgrimage. Devotees of the multi-million selling historical thriller have flocked to the chapel, which plays a relatively brief, but key part in the controversial novel.

To step inside Rosslyn Chapel is to leave behind all notions of dramatic fantasy. The low-vaulted interior is laden with meaning and significance, virtually every surface redolent with imagery that eludes a single interpretation. This is a place that has survived dark, dark times – it was locked up for almost 150 years as a result of the Reformation – so it can cope with a surge in the number of visitors (which broke the 100,000 mark this year, drawing Rosslyn into the league of same visitor attractions as Edinburgh Castle) and Hollywood stars. Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, as The Da Vinci Code’s main characters, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, arrived in Roslin in September to film the adaptation of the novel, along with the predictable media circus.

It was then that the trust which runs the chapel – and its regular congregation – knew things would never be the same. Iain Grimston, Rosslyn Chapel Trust’s visitor service manager, says the interest has been crazy.

“Our visitor numbers are double for the whole of 1995, that’s the kind of change that’s happened here,” he says. “There was an underlying trend as interest in the chapel rose, but The Da Vinci Code has had a huge effect, and will for years to come, more so than any of the books on the esoterica of the chapel, such as Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It has really been a mad year.

The Da Vinci Code

So error-laden is The Da Vinci Code that the educated reader actually applauds those rare occasions where Brown stumbles (despite himself) into the truth. […] In the end, Dan Brown has penned a poorly written, atrociously researched mess.
Source: Dismantling The Da Vinci Code By Sandra Miesel, Crisis, Sep. 1, 2003

“We do get people asking to see the features mentioned [in Brown’s book] but many just aren’t there, such as the star on the floor – it’s a work of fiction, but the research done on it is sloppy. Those who come in with the book leave with the reality, and are better informed.”

The reality includes the faces of more than 100 Green Men – a symbol from pagan times – peering out from behind countless angels and gargoyles, while supporting the base of the fabled Apprentice Pillar are eight dragons, thought to be an allusion to Yggdrasil, a great ash tree that in Norse mythology connected heaven, earth and hell – whose base was also bounded by dragons. There are also symbols said to have resonance in Freemasonry and for the Knights Templar. All of this is grist to the mills of those who believe the chapel is key to the understanding of the search for the Holy Grail – and its supposedly devastating revelations about the life of Christ and his relationship with Mary Magdalene.

But whatever the reason for visitors to come, their swelling number has forced the trust to consider the impact on the building very carefully. For the moment, things can only get worse – the film is released in the UK in May.

The church is already in the middle of being “dried out” after catastrophic conservation work sealed the building’s surface and trapped moisture inside. Grimston explains: “There are issues and concerns over the effect from the humidity of having so many people in the building, there is also the potential damage caused by people carrying their backpacks around it. But these are going to be addressed. We realise we are going to get huge numbers on the back of the film and we have to be prepared for that.” The visitors are not a curse, though, as they bring much-needed funds to continue the conservation and upkeep of the chapel’s fabric. Although The Da Vinci Code whirl may have set the tills ringing in the gift shop, at the heart of Rosslyn there is still an active church. It has a growing congregation under the leadership of the Rev Michael Fass, with an increasing number of baptisms and a busy social life well beyond the Sunday services.

Richard Broadhurst, a member of the church’s vestry – which has striven to accommodate Rosslyn’s rediscovery by the public with its central role as a place of worship – put the place of The Da Vinci Code in the church’s history in context: “The church was founded in 1446. Now, if Dan Brown is the phenomenon, will we still be talking about him in 2563?

“Obviously, it’s a novel – which some people don’t remember – and a fantastic one, as it introduces some things that aren’t there. So some people are looking in desperate hope of seeing something and are slightly disappointed, but I think most people are just intrigued. Once they’ve got here, the reason might have been Dan Brown’s book, but I think some are visibly touched. They are attracted by stories, but when they get here, their chins hit the floor because they see the beauty that was produced when 40 stonemasons were brought from the continent – it would be like bringing them back from the Moon now – to carry out 50 years of building.

“They are often intrigued when noon prayers start, and come up to thank you for the small amount of peace that you’ve given them; that touches a lot of people.

“It is a magical place and very few people aren’t touched in some way by the spirit of the place. Certainly, if it’s full of people worshipping or noon prayers, it’s an amazing place. It brings it to life and gives it an authenticity which would otherwise be lacking if you were viewing it only as a visitor attraction.”

Indeed, to visit Rosslyn for noon prayers, even on a bracing day in December, is to understand that the attraction sits somewhere far beyond the arcane riddles of its stones. When it comes to the myths and “new age” beliefs – there are those who believe that ley lines intersect in the church – Fass gives them short shrift. In series of sermons on the church, titled Faith and Place, he writes: “I am passionate that the promotion of this place should not be based upon mystery, paganism, Masonic or Templar secrets; such an approach is, I believe, profoundly misguided.” Elsewhere, he adds: “I am passionate that this should be a place not of unhealed or false memories, not of secrets and sensational speculation or ‘esoteric’ inquiry – for there are no secrets here – and not of the new-age search for personal satisfaction, but rather it should be a place of healing, reconciliation and prayer.”

Listening to Broadhurst interlacing prayers left by visitors from around the world with a poem by Dennis O’Driscoll – on the absence of God in the everyday – while pointing to significant details within the chapel, the half-dozen or so tourists who had been milling about recording the church with their digital cameras and camcorders sit down and instead experience what both he and the congregation would rather it be known as: an extremely beautiful, still and spiritual place.

Peace and quiet, in the truest sense, is something Broadhurst believes is in short supply nowadays: “I think many people find it very helpful to be given ten minutes in which they don’t have to rush; when they can sit down and think more and give thanks for the amazing place we live in.”

It doesn’t require any great depth of religious belief or spirituality to sense that Rosslyn is special; only the hardest cynic could walk away untouched from here.

But it is little wonder that those who know and love Rosslyn view The Da Vinci Code palaver as but a fleeting moment in the chapel’s multifaceted history.

Its walls have seen the rise and fall of empires and weathered the storms of the Reformation during the 16th century, when the chapel was locked up and left unused for 144 years.

“I think most people feel two things about the recent activity: one is that their own worship, their way of life in making use of the chapel has changed, and some of them feel that, on occasion, there’s a little intrusion,” says Broadhurst. “But I think most people realise that the building doesn’t belong to them in that sense, it’s everybody’s to share – and I think many, especially those involved in leading prayers, look upon it as a marvellous opportunity.

“The chapel has a reach very few churches have for being able to catch these people as they pass by. We have to make sure we retain the appropriate atmosphere in which to make the best of noon prayers. We’ve discussed this with the guides and the volunteers leading prayers to make sure we get the most out of the place for the benefit of visitors and members of the congregation.”

It is not hard to understand why, over six centuries, so many people have tried to pin some sort of deep meaning to Rosslyn’s beauty. Perhaps it is difficult for some to comprehend that a building as intricate and as special has withstood the centuries. Is that why they look for “secrets” in its stones and carvings?

One thing is sure: Rosslyn Chapel has survived for almost six centuries and it will still be standing long after The Da Vinci Code is forgotten.


• In the nearly three years since it was first published, more than 25 million copies of The Da Vinci Code have been printed worldwide (3.65 million in the UK alone) and it has been translated into 44 languages.

• It has inspired dozens of parodies and critiques, and increased interest in religious thrillers, art history and speculation about the lives of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.

• Dan Brown, above, is reported to have earned $200 million ( £116 million) from the book, including a $6 million ( £3.48 million) deal for the film.

• The movie, starring Tom Hanks as symbologist Robert Langdon and Audrey Tautou as his French sidekick, Sophie Neveu, will be released in the UK in May.

• The book caused controversy among Catholics because of its fictionalised account of the history of the Holy Grail. In the novel, the main characters find evidence that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child, facts which the Catholic Church had supposedly suppressed, in a conspiracy lasting almost 2,000 years.

• Opus Dei objected to its negative portrayal in the book as an extremist religious sect. The central villain in the book is a fanatical member of Opus Dei who flays himself.

• Trinity College Dublin will offer a six-week course of classes devoted to unravelling the fact from fiction in the book’s treatment of the Holy Grail myth from January 2006.

• More than ten works have been written trying to discredit the historical and theological content of Brown’s novel.

• Eurostar says the book accounted for a 15 per cent increase in passengers on its London-Paris route over the past 12 months, as the story begins – and ends – at the Louvre.

• Brown attended Yale university and tried to become a Hollywood musician before deciding to study art history in Seville. He returned to teaching in 1993.

More about Rosslyn Chapel

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Scotsman, UK
Dec. 31, 2005
Craig Brown

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This post was last updated: Friday, May 9, 2014 at 1:46 PM, Central European Time (CET)