What You See Isn’t Always What You Get.

I must admit that I still find the idea of hidden musical notation in Rosslyn Chapel fascinating. Not that I think there has yet been any meaningful evidence provided for this, nor as a sceptic am I able to take the idea on faith alone. No, it’s the phenomenon that seems to play a large part in some of the Rosslyn myths that I’m interested in – apophenia. Evolution has provided us with the ability to recognise abstract patterns and ideas in things that are new to us. Put simplistically, this helped our hunter-gatherer forbears to spot that naughty bit of megafauna hiding in the undergrowth. It’s still useful in everyday life today, but it has most peculiar side effects. If you’ve ever been in the shower and sure that you’ve heard the doorbell go, or the phone ring, that’s your confused brain trying to make sense of the many noises being produced by the falling water and directing you to take action in case you miss that call. Visual equivalents of this (or pareidolia) are everywhere; the man in the moon is the all-time classic, and the face on Mars a latter-day parallel. Who hasn’t lain on the ground on a cloudy day and through wishful thinking “seen” all manner of creatures, vehicles, and bodily appendages? Most people who experience this often subconscious phenomenon recognise it for what it is, chuckle, and move on. After all, the next person to see the thing in question will invariably have a different interpretation to offer based on their own experiences and thought processes. The meaning is entirely personal and subjective, even if the similarity to certain things is quite striking. But some people with deep-seated beliefs or other agendas, might convince themselves that what they are seeing is more than co-incidence – that it’s somehow significant. The more “out-there” individuals contact the press claiming to have seen the Pope in a Pop-Tart or the Virgin Mary in a grilled-cheese sandwich. Then we have those in-between; people who see something that looks like something else, and feel it represents real-world confirmation of something they’ve believed might be the case all along. It’s this category that the pseudohistorian, cult archaeologist, and cryptozoologist fall into; by misrepresenting the subjective similarity and/or significance of something, they can both “prove” something para-normal and be an “expert” and a celebrated figure, all with very little work! Both fellow believers and the casual layperson (including the media) will be swept along by whatever sexy, Indiana Jones-esque revelation is being “revealed”.

In other words, things can look like other things. In an historical context, you need evidence to be sure it’s not just your brain playing tricks on you. Because if you’ve built a whole theory around this, you could end up looking rather silly.

This brings me back to the Rosslyn Chapel carvings or “cusps” as they should probably be described. An entire theory (and a small degree of fame and fortune) hinges on the idea that each carving is not purelynow hinges on the idea that each carving is not purely decorative but instead represents a musical note visualised using a liquid or sand on a vibrating surface (300 years before such techniques were known in the West). You can see how the two things actually compare in the image in my original post, as well as in Stuart Mitchell’s YouTube video. Personally, I think they look very little alike. But the carvings are odd-looking; quite geometric. How rare are such carvings? What else might they represent? Rosslyn is known for its rich and unique stonework; are these supposedly mystical figures to be seen elsewhere?

Yep. Here’s one of the Rosslyn patterns, next to a drawing of a carving from a completely different building:

cube.jpgA typical piece of church foliate decoration. Not a chladni plate.

Not a perfect match, but at least as good as any of the vibration-patterns used as “evidence” for the musical theory. In fact, there is context for this similarity that elevates it above mere pareidolia. Foliage themes and motifs were pretty universal in Gothic ecclesiastical architecture; Rosslyn itself is crawling with stylised naturalistic carvings. My final image combines two of the major cusp/cube carving motifs – vine leaves, and flower buds:

Exeter Cathedral boss

So, does Exeter Cathedral, from whence this particular boss comes, have its very own hidden musical code just waiting to be cracked? Do the other churches and cathedrals in the UK? I think not. I also think it’s an extremely poor basis for the complete musical score put forward earlier this year by the Mitchells, and for the original theory put forward by fellow New Ager Stephen Prior before them.

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One Response to “What You See Isn’t Always What You Get.”

  1. Early in the hi… « The BS Historian Says:

    [...] more parsimonious explanation for the ‘motet’ – that it is an elaborate example of bad pattern recognition. The fact that the claim is unfalsifiable is not just a caveat, it undermines the whole [...]

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