Da Vinci and Scotland: Rosslyn Chapel

To my own shame, I have never read The Da Vinci Code. Nor have I seen the entire movie. I have, however, seen the last two minutes of the film, where Robert Langdon is talking to Sophie about her being *spoiler alert* a descendant of Jesus Christ.

 

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Most of us probably remember when the book came out. I certainly remember the Christian community – Catholics in particular – getting all bent out of shape about it. In fact, our parish priest had to get up at mass and remind people that it was a work of fiction, and so long as no one took anything in it to be Gospel truth, it wasn’t sinful to read it (or be entertained by it). Even fifteen years later, the book still catches some heat from people who like to put those darned fiction writers in their places (I like to laugh at these people, mostly because I don’t think that pulp fiction – albeit very good pulp fiction – is ever worth getting bent out of shape about).

Regardless of where you come down on the theological question of whether or not you can believe in the Gospels and read fiction, one thing is for sure: Dan Brown picked a beautiful place to close out his novel: Rosslyn Chapel in the Scottish Borders.

 

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The chapel at Roslin was built in the 15th century by the Sinclair family to serve their estate, which lies a few miles south of Edinburgh in the Border region. Once it was finished, it was the family church, and a college of canons sung the offices of the Church (hourly prayers) there every day. This was quite fashionable among the wealthy nobility, as it was believed that having the Divine Offices sung in the family church would help deceased family members on their journeys through purgatory and into heaven (obviously, this is a 1% kind of thing – everyone else just gets a prayer in a normal mass). As is only right for a chapel belonging to wealthy landed nobility, Rosslyn chapel was built to be even more ornate than the grand cathedrals of the time.

And this, my friends, is where the Knights Templar enter the story. Art for art’s sake is a difficult concept for many people to grasp, and the idea of building a church as elaborate and highly decorated as the Rosslyn Chapel just because was outside the realm of possibility. No, no. There must be something more important than prayers for dead people going on in that church. The Knights Templar, those sneaky and secretive crusaders, must have snuck something in and buried it underneath the church, and then decorated it to match its charge.

 

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But remember, this is Scotland. If it had been suspected that there was a treasure trove à la National Treasure sitting underneath Rosslyn Chapel, locals would have gone out there in the dead of night with shovels looking for it. They believed that something even more precious must be buried there: the Holy Grail of Christ.

According to Dan Brown’s novel, the Holy Grail was the person of the descendant of Jesus Christ. This is the part that set Christians aflutter when the book came out in the early 2000s; no one liked the idea of Jesus having fathered children.

But wait! you say. In Indiana Jones, the Holy Grail was a cup! This is true. In some traditions, the Holy Grail is the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. In other traditions, it’s the cup that was used to catch Jesus’s blood after the centurion jabbed him while he was hanging on the cross. That last one seems a bit far-fetched to me. I mean, who brings a goblet to a crucifixion?

 

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The truth is, no one knows for sure what the Holy Grail was. There are so many different traditions about it that it’s impossible to know if any of them have any truth to them. The tradition that Dan Brown picked up on was the one which claims Mary Magdalene left the Holy Land after the crucifixion with the Holy Grail in her possession in order to keep it safe. Some people say that it was a cup that she smuggled out. Others say it was her baby. Again, no one knows for sure.

One thing that can be said for sure: The Holy Grail is not at Rosslyn Chapel. At least not how Dan Brown described it. The tour guide at the chapel pointed out that the Star of David, which served as Robert Langdon’s final clue in the book/movie, doesn’t actually exist in the church, and had to be added by the film crew.

Regardless, the Rosslyn Chapel is one of the more impressive churches I’ve been it. It’s very small – it is, after all, just a chapel – but the amount of work and artistry that went into it is just astounding. Even if Robert Langdon never could find the Holy Grail there, it’s well worth your visit.

 

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Visiting Rosslyn Chapel

Getting there: You can easily get to Roslin (the village the chapel is in) by bus from Edinburgh’s city center. Take bus #37 towards Penicuik/Deanburn. A bus ticket will set you back £1.60 and the ride will take about 45 minutes from Princes Street.

Admission: There is an admission fee of £9 to enter the chapel. This is to cover the cost of restoring the chapel, which has received considerably more wear and tear from an increase in visitors since The Da Vinci Code came out.

Hours: The opening hours vary by season. Between September and May, the chapel is open Monday through Saturday 9:30 – 17:00 and Sundays 12 noon – 16:45. Between June and August, the chapel is open Monday through Saturday 9:30 – 18:00 and Sundays 12 noon – 16:45.

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