Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel

Site Information

Country: Scotland
State: Roslin
Location: 55° 51' 19" N - 3° 9' 29" W
Field Documentation Date(s): To be determined
Project Release Date(s): To be determined
Time Range: 1446 CE - 1572 CE
Era: Gothic
world map with location

Model of the seven virtues and seven sins carving at Rosslyn Chapel.

Site Description


Rosslyn Chapel lies on the edge of the village of Roslin in Midlothian, Scotland, approximately 7 miles south of the centre of Edinburgh. The chapel is located in a quiet rural area, but one which has great historic significance. It sits on a generally flat site on the edge of the Esk Valley near the ruined Roslin Castle. Rosslyn Chapel was constructed almost entirely in stone, with no structural timber except within the much later Victorian baptistery added to the west end of the chapel. The chapel is thought to be only part of what was intended to be a much larger church, and it exhibits immense historic, architectural and cultural value. The extent of carved stonework both internally and externally makes this little chapel truly unique.

The chapel as it stands today is a single volume, with a choir, side aisles and Lady Chapel areas. There are 7 bays, the choir comprising 6 bays with clerestories flanked by side aisles and flying buttresses (with their unique stone pinnacles) to the north and south and by the Lady Chapel to the east. A sacristy / crypt is located at the lower level to the east side. The baptistery to the west was added to the large flanking wall which defines the west end of the chapel and which appears to have been the beginnings of the much larger building which was originally planned.

The chapel is now surrounded on all sides by a stone wall defining its precincts and incorporating a much later simple stone building which has over recent years provided visitor facilities. A number of monuments and memorials surround the site.
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The chapel was constructed by Sir William St Clair, 11th Baron of Roslin and 3rd Prince of Orkney, commencing in 1446 and dedicated in 1450 as the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew for the St Clair family with a staff of a provost, six prebendaries and two choristers. The chapel was still under construction when Sir William died in 1484 and it is thought that building work came to an end soon after his death.

In 1571 the endowments for Rosslyn Chapel were seized as the effects of the Reformation took hold and in 1592 Oliver St Clair was ordered to destroy the altars of Rosslyn, the chapel then ceasing its ecclesiastical use. In 1650 when Oliver Cromwell’s troops sacked the nearby Rosslyn Castle, the chapel was spared, though it is reputed to have been used to stable the troops’ horses.

Over the centuries many writers and artists visited Rosslyn including Robert Burns, Dorothy and William Wordsworth and Alexander Naysmyth. In 1842, Queen Victoria herself visited the site and expressed a desire that the chapel be “preserved for the country.” Following restoration work under the hand of architect David Bryce on behalf of the 3rd Earl of Rosslyn, the Chapel was rededicated by the Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh.

Since then there have been various phases of restoration and conservation work undertaken in the 20th century in relation to the barrel-vaulted choir roof and internal stonework. Much of these efforts are now regarded as having been detrimental to the long-term integrity of the chapel.

The unique carvings of the chapel have been the subject of much speculation and conjecture, as Christian symbolism and other references are interspersed throughout the building. In 1630, Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn was granted the charters from the Masons of Scotland, which confirms that the St Clairs were traditional Grand Masters of the Masons of Scotland. Accordingly, Rosslyn Chapel is of considerable interest to Masonic groups.

The chapel continues today as a place of worship. The Episcopal congregation conducts Sunday services, weddings, and funerals at Rosslyn Chapel. The chapel is also the focus of recent visitor interest after author Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, as Rosslyn Chapel is featured in both the book and the film created from this story. The year 2012 saw the culmination of a £9 million repair and conservation project intended to ensure the long term integrity of the chapel as well as provide an appropriate level of service for visitors through a new visitor and education centre.
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Perspective of a mesh section of Rosslyn Chapel's interior.

Project Narrative


In March 2009, CyArk partners Historic Scotland and the Digital Design Studio at the Glasgow School of Art conducted laser scanning of the interior and exterior of Rosslyn Chapel, collecting over 4 billion points over a 3-day period. In addition to HDS scan data and high-resolution digital photography, the team conducted a thermographic survey of the chapel to identify areas of heat loss and water ingress. The combination of scanning and thermographic data allows for a clearer understanding in 3D of thermal behavior.

The digital documentation of Rosslyn Chapel was conducted prior to major site conservation efforts, and the data is currently assisting the conservation process by informing the team of structural details and enabling better site interpretation during the restoration period. Over the centuries, many of the intricate carvings and foundational structures at Rosslyn Chapel have eroded. The Rosslyn Chapel digital preservation project hopes to document the site accurately for restoration and educational purposes, preserving the integrity of the site for future generations.
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Area Descriptions

Lady Chapel
North Aisle
South Aisle

Baptistery Description:

Constructed between 1880-81, the baptistery is the most modern section of Rosslyn Chapel. Two ornate stained and painted glass windows are featured in the baptistery, the first being of St. Francis of Assisi dedicated to Princess Dimitri of Russia, the mother of the 6th Earl of Rosslyn. The second is of an airman, and is dedicated to the 6th Earl's brother and Stepfather, both of whom died from injuries received while on active service during World War II. Also located in the baptistery is the Victorian baptismal font, traditionally used to baptize babies.

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Choir Description:

The choir, or centre, area is the main body of the chapel, and boasts an impressive ceiling of carved stars and flowers. The organ loft is located along the west wall of the choir, where a banner to Saint Mathew (Rosslyn Chapel’s patron saint) hangs.

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Lady Chapel Description:

The Lady Chapel is the most ornate area of the Chapel, located on the eastern end of the chapel. The apprentice pillar, a well-known feature at Rosslyn Chapel, is located in the Lady Chapel area, as well as green men and angel sculptures.

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North Aisle Description:

The north door leading into the north aisle is known as the Bachelor’s Door, as traditionally only men would enter the Chapel from the north. Women would enter from the south, through the door located along the south aisle. The north aisle area of Rosslyn Chapel features several unique carvings, including an angel holding the Rosslyn coat of arms.

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Sacristry Description:

Located down a steep flight of stairs from the body of the chapel is the sacristry, or crypt. Some believe that the sacristry could be much older than the chapel and be part of an earlier building, especially as the original castle may have been on this site. However, more recent investigations suggest that the sacristry is contemporary with the rest of the chapel. It is believed that the sacristry was utilised by the original stonemasons due to the number of rough drawings and mason’s marks on the sacristry walls. Stonemasons relied on these markings to document work and pay.

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South Aisle Description:

The south aisle of Rosslyn Chapel is adorned with several biblical carvings and stories. One of the most prominent carvings is the Seven Acts of Mercy carved into a stone archway, with the Seven Deadly Sins carved into the opposite side. An interesting error was made while making this arch, as one of the blocks is in fact carved the wrong way around, causing one sin and one act of mercy to be on the opposite of their intended sides.

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  1. Page/Park Architects (2007). Rosslyn Chapel Conservation Plan. Page/Park Architects Report.
  2. Rosslyn Chapel Trust Website.
  3. Rosslyn H and Maggi A (2002). Rosslyn: Country of Painter and Poet. Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland.
  4. The Earl of Rosslyn (1997). Rosslyn Chapel, Rosslyn Chapel Trust.

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