Secrets in the stone
ON THE south wall of Rosslyn Chapel, alongside the entrance historically used by women, is a very curious carving. It shows a blindfolded figure, kneeling between two pillars and holding a Bible, with a noose lying loosely around his neck.
To anyone familiar with the rites of Freemasonry, this carving bears a remarkable similarity to a Masonic initiation ceremony. But if Alan Butler and John Ritchie, the authors of Rosslyn Revealed, are correct, the resemblance is anything but coincidental.
Rosslyn has long been associated with Freemasonry, a worldwide secret society thought to have originated among the guilds of medieval craftsmen. But Butler and Ritchie believe the connection between Rosslyn and Freemasonry is more dramatic than anyone previously suspected – arguing that the beliefs of Freemasonry were first formulated by the stonemasons who built Rosslyn. They believe the chapel was not simply a reflection of the philosophy of Freemasonry, but its original inspiration.
In Rosslyn Revealed, they claim the beliefs of Freemasonry are rooted in the Ebionite philosophy of Sir William Sinclair and Gilbert Haye, creators of Rosslyn Chapel. Ebionites denied the divinity of Jesus Christ and exalted John the Baptist.
Ritchie says: “Ebionites did not believe in a hierarchical church. They believed every individual was unique and had their own relationship with God. They believed in the betterment of mankind and in man the artist. Freemasons also believe in the betterment of mankind, in education and the individual – we believe Rosslyn was the origin of that philosophy.”
The authors believe that Haye, a polymath and former chancellor at the French court, came to Scotland because it had a reputation for independent thinking. The book argues that the master masons who came to Midlothian from across Europe to build the chapel between 1456 and 1496 became, in effect, the first Freemasons. The secretive nature of the craft, they say, was forged at Rosslyn, through rituals and ceremonies devised by Haye and Sinclair – linked closely to the beliefs of the Ebionites.
The carvings of Rosslyn are unlike those of a normal church because they reflect Ebionite symbolism rather than the more mainstream Christian tradition.
Ebionism had its origins in a pre-Christian mystery tradition and incorporated beliefs and symbols from Judaism, Islam and Egyptian and Persian traditions. Butler and Ritchie believe Sinclair and Haye enshrined these beliefs and symbols in the very fabric of Rosslyn – to ensure they were understood by future generations.
Many believe some of the leading figures of the Renaissance may have been Ebionites. But the sect, with its emphasis on individuality, was a threat to the hierarchical beliefs of the established church.
When Sinclair and Haye gathered the finest stonemasons in Europe to build Rosslyn, they paid them well. To ensure they kept quiet about the role of Ebionism and the mystical symbolism incorporated into the design of the chapel, Ritchie and Butler believe they swore their workers to secrecy by forming them into a society – binding them together with oaths, ceremonies and terrifying threats; the very roots of Freemasonry.
Ritchie says: “As it turns out, Rosslyn is far more important to Freemasonry than we thought. In fact, Freemasonry owes its very existence to the chapel.”
In Rosslyn Revealed, the authors say: “The earl was faced with a problem. How would it be possible to pass on knowledge of the timeless truths carved into the walls of the chapel without divulging its secrets to the world at large and thereby bringing retribution down on his own head and that of his children [because Ebionites were viewed as heretics]? The creation of Freemasonry was his response.”
Ironically, when the authors first embarked on their research almost ten years ago, they were sceptical about the chapel’s supposed links with Freemasonry. Many of the carvings inside the chapel with supposed Masonic links were actually added in 1871, when the chapel was extensively restored – and Butler and Ritchie are convinced that the carving which visitors to the chapel are told is of the apprentice who built the so-called Apprentice Pillar, linked to a well-known Masonic legend, is actually the defaced image of an apostle.
However, they admit they were wrong. Ritchie says: “This is something which is so typical of Rosslyn. Every time you think you have worked things out, it throws up something which completely takes you by surprise.”
While it might seems incredible to associate a tiny chapel in Midlothian with the very creation of a secret brotherhood which spread worldwide and played an important role in the creation of the American constitution, the link between Freemasonry with the Sinclair family is clear.
The earliest known Freemason lodge, Lodge 0, was recorded at Kilwinning in Ayrshire in 1598 and was associated with a Tironesian Abbey on Sinclair land. The oldest written records of Freemasonry are found in Scotland and the Sinclairs of Roslin were hereditary Grand Masters of Scottish Freemasonry.
The authors found a compelling piece of evidence in the “first degree tracing board” of Freemasonry, which shows three pillars, just like those at the front of the nave in Rosslyn Chapel. The pillar on the right, which is the most ornate, represents beauty and stands in the same place as the Apprentice Pillar – which has long been associated with Masonic legend.
Much of the metaphor found in theoretical Freemasonry, which was to become so powerful and widespread around the world, is based on different styles of architecture and stone craft.
And one of the most curious facts about Rosslyn Chapel is that it contains examples of many different styles of architecture. Ritchie says: “It has examples of every kind of arch and window that were available at the time. It is like a guide book, an instruction book for the guild.”
Astronomy, in particular the planet Venus, has an important role in Masonic ritual and Ritchie and Butler believe Rosslyn was used as an observatory from which to chart the movements of Venus.
While the beliefs of Freemasonry have changed and been embellished over the years, the authors believe they have their core origins in the Ebionite belief systems incorporated into the design of Rosslyn. They write: “At the heart of Freemasonry we still find imperatives critically important to William Sinclair and Gilbert Haye. These include a deep reverence for John the Baptist, an enduring belief in justice, equality and fraternity, a reverence for the Noahide Laws of ancient Judaism and a recognition for that all-important part of the year around the autumn equinox.
“The same heady cocktail of Old Testament legend, Ebionite Christianity, mystery rite religion and a reverence for the human sprit that was personified by the 15th-century Sinclairs was passed directly to Freemasonry and in part survives with the craft to this day.”
While the Masonic angels inside the chapel are undoubtedly a piece of Victorian fancy, the Masonic initiate on the outside of the building may well have been the first of his kind.
Once again, the facts about Rosslyn Chapel may well prove to be even more extraordinary than the fiction. In the book, Butler and Ritchie write: “Long after interest in The Da Vinci Code has waned, Freemasons from around the world will still be making their way to Rosslyn Chapel. And that is how it should be, because without this extraordinary building Freemasonry would never have existed. Rosslyn Chapel is without any doubt the oldest and most important of all Freemasonic temples.”
CLAIRE SMITH – The Scotsman
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