Tuesday, August 03, 2010

No Secrets, Only Christ

Book Review: Rosslyn Chapel Revealed, by Michael T.R.B. Turnbull. The History Press, Stroud, Gloustershire, 2009. $20.40 from Amazon.com. 256 pp.

When Dan Brown's tiresome little conspiracy thriller The Da Vinci Code was published, some bright young journalist went to get famed Italian semiotician Umberto Eco's take on things. This was, in all likelyhood, probably about the tenth time the scholar had gotten quizzed on this matter. Eco's second novel, Foucault's Pendulum, was simultaneously the greatest conspiracy theory novel ever published, and also probably the greatest send-up of the genre. In Eco's telling, the wretchedly self-absorbed theorists prove to be about as strange as the imaginary conspiracies they were chasing. Eco's comment? "My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel."

Another Eco comment, from the novel itself, springs to mind: "You can tell a [lunatic] [...] by the fact that sooner or later, he brings up the Templars." There are, however, no Templars in Michael T.R.B. Turnbull's clearly-written, exhaustively illustrated and researched new history of Rosslyn Chapel, a traditional lightning-rod for fringe scholarship of the History Channel Mary Magdalene and the Hidden Nazi Gold of the Templar UFOs school. Turnbull, by contrast, brings to the table his own sober credentials as the author of several other works of architectural and cultural history, such as Landmarks and Buildings of Edinburgh, The Edinburgh Graveyard Guide, and a biography of Scottish opera singer Mary Garden. Rosslyn Chapel Revealed does a great service in debunking the numerous myths that have grown in in the recent past about this medieval Scottish masterwork of stonemasonry and prayer, a wealthy collegiate church built and endowed by William St. Clair, the first earl of Caithness as a chantry for the faithful departed, particularly the family dead.

At the same time, Turnbull does not make it his principal or even initial goal to simply be content with disproving the purported occult symbolism of the place, or that ornamental carvings in the chapel allude to the Templar discovery of Anerica (don't ask), or exploding the rather Gothick-with-a-k 18th-century tale about the church's "Apprentice Pillar," supposedly commemorating the bloody murder of a young stonemason murdered by a jealous master mason. Unlike other meccas for the weird, like the church at Rennes-le-Chateau--which, when deprived of its veneer of Magdalene myth, turns out to be little more than an assemblage of 19th century kitsch accumulated by a clerical con-man--Rosslyn Chapel and its surroundings have an intriguing and very true story to tell to those who will listen, presented with great sympathy and scholarship in this book.

Turnbull is to be particularly applauded in his presentation of the chapel's spiritual origins, which grows into a brief if systematic description of late medieval religion similar in tone to the first half of Eamonn Duffy's groundbreaking The Stripping of the Altars. He reconnects the history and architecture of the place with its context of the mass and the Divine Office, the theology of worship, and the context of the region, illuminating the living faith of these long-dead people. Sir William's patronage had both liturgical and social aspects: not only was the church simply a collegiate institution, but it also had a substantial parochial role as well, replacing both St. Clair's cramped castle chapel and a dilapidated local church halfway down a neighboring hill.

The building's lavish and occasionally grotesque ornamentation, long a playground for tenuous speculation, is discussed and described with atmospheric precision (and one rather amusing reference to the film Alien) in a guidebook-like walk round the church as it stands today. Turnbull makes a particularly good point regarding the medieval use of symbols--that the recondite sort of iconography so beloved of the theorizes was wholly alien to the medieval mind, and that even the odd and even bawdy could be turned to the service of Christ:

Hence there would be no sense in making the symbols and signs in the church
comprehensible to only an esoteric clique [...]. Part of the distaste
experienced and the reservations voiced by [Victorian renovators] was due to the
fact that the rude and crude realities of medieval life were frozen for ever in
stone in a building whose primary purpose was to provide solemnity in
worship. The exuberance of the stonemasons who [...] introduced onto a
lintel a smirking face with vegetation oozing out of its skin, was rooted in a
down-to-earth view of life that understood that solemn rituals were only part of
religion [...].
The medieval worldview was truly catholic and universal, and had room for everything from saints to gargoyles in giving glory to God. The church's interior is replete with such moments of high and low, from angels clutching Bibles to a miniscule Dance of Death ("a kind of frightening medieval lambada"), the best often hidden away in places where you would least expect them. Given the loss of the interior's rich coating of polychromy and the subsequent affects of time and climate, it is understanding how this riot of ornament could be merely ignored as naive exuberance, but Turnbull serves as an excellent guide to the rich symbolism that was once apparent to the meanest medieval peasant but is lost on all but scholars today. There are hanging vegetal pendants, like carved stalactites, angels pumping organ-bellows, the Virgin and the magi, twisting dragons, and a frieze depicting the Corporal Works of Mercy, and still more.

The book also covers the surrounding countryside, its personalities and castles, history and homes, and even a brief note explaining one of the few benefits of Rosslyn Chapel getting Dan Browned: a massive surge in tourism. The chapel remains a functioning parish of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and Turnbull thoughtfully quotes, in the book's epilogue, a sermon preached there in 2003: "[T]here are no secrets here, anyone and everyone has access to the Good News..." Let us hope that, with the publication of this book, some of those tourists may look beyond Masonic moonshine to the sun of Justice, Jesus Christ.

Many thanks to the author for providing me with a signed review copy gratis, and for his extreme patience in waiting for months for me to complete this very tardy review!

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: