Seeing the light (box) at Rosslyn Chapel

One of the more recent alternative history books written about Rosslyn Chapel is “Rosslyn Revealed ; A Library in Stone” by Butler and Ritchie. Compared to the overt mysticism of Thomas Mitchell’s “Music of the Cubes“, you could be forgiven at first glance for thinking it might take a reasoned, if populist, approach. It even has the odd reference/footnote! Sadly, serious research shortcomings become apparent as the chapters unfold, as various speculative interpretations abound, both old and new. There seems to be a concerted effort to associate the Chapel with an ephemeral, secretive and heretical, yet progressive spirituality/philosophy. This is supposed to have embraced the Jewish “Kabala” and venerating John the Baptist to the exclusion of Jesus himself (conveniently dismissing the heavy Christian symbolism as a cover story), and culminated in the founding of Freemasonry at the chapel itself! Butler and Ritchie confidently label the devoutly Christian founder of the chapel (William Sinclair), and various tenuously linked historical figures (including Pope Pius II) as secret followers. This central thread, and just about every other claim made in the book is supported by nothing more than circular argument. They start from premises that are neither backed by quality evidence, nor accepted by historians. The precarious position so established is then passed off as fact and used to prop up the next specious idea, and so on. Careful to keep the really wacky stuff at arms length for most of the book, they nonetheless add a dash of sacred geometry of their own towards the end, and even include the wonderfully bonkers and thoroughly discredited Madame Blavatsky as one of their few cited references.

A New Discovery at the Chapel?
There was one aspect of the authors’ work that made the press back in 2006; the (re)discovery of the so-called “light box”; a tiny stained glass window set into the uppermost tracery of the east window. Based upon rather unscientific observation however, Butler and Ritchie believe it to be more complex than that. They postulate, without having the means to check, a short, roughly pentagonal (natch!) channel containing red and white glass panes or lenses and a reflective liner, somehow capable of both projecting a defined beam of light and permitting observation of a rare planetary conjunction (see below). In this Youtube video, the interior does appear to be somewhat reflective when lit, though not perhaps the gold, mica, or faceted precious stone suggested. The metal visible around the edge of the hole is what appears to be plain old (oxidised) glazing lead. Whatever the case, here’s the “box”, shown from inside the Chapel (image taken from the above-linked Scotsman article);

The Rosslyn “light box”.

They were apparently alerted to its presence by a local person who told them of a particular effect that could be observed on 21st September each year. As the authors point out, this corresponds to the Autumn Equinox and also St Matthew’s Day. The latter may indeed be no co-incidence, as the chapel has long been known to be dedicated to that Christian saint, and was probably founded on his day in AD1450 (see this PDF). Butler and Ritchie describe their “Indiana Jones moment” in confirming this effect first hand. Good thing 21 September 2006 was an unseasonally cloudless day! I should point out that though their Youtube video purports to show the effect au natural on the big day, the portions showing the illuminated box are clearly taken from their earlier experiments with a 3-million candlepower lamp. Essentially they are applying a red filter to said lamp, and so the differences between a directed beam, and the diffuse light radiated by the sun, is difficult to reconcile with the observed effect they claim. There are other problems with their approach, for example no mention is made of “control” visits to ensure that the same level of light is not produced on other days and under different weather conditions. They do construct a Blue Peter-esque plastic replica to replicate the red and white “doughnut” of light observed in the chapel. As this model was designed, after the fact and from the outset, to do exactly that, and cannot be validated, it seems pretty pointless. The team really “jump the shark” as far I was concerned, when they state that it would also have been possible to observe via the tiny window, a planetary conjunction that they equate with a their convoluted interpretation of the kabalistic “Shekinah“. Thus convinced of what they have discovered and its special esoteric significance, they proceed to make the “light box” the centrepiece of “secret Kabalistic library” hypothesis, citing flawed examples of precedent such as the Saint-Sulpice sundial, actually an 18th Century addition built to show the date of Easter each year.

The Evidence

Esoterica aside, let’s test the validity of this tangible claim. Have they really discovered an original (i.e. 15th Century) architectural feature in the chapel? No. They have brought to light a little known and interesting feature of the Chapel; a rare feat given the intense scrutiny the building has been under over the years. But their “light box” is demonstrably a 19th Century addition. Read on…

The authors of “Rosslyn Revealed” are at least intellectually honest enough to point out the main drawback to their claim, only to cheerfully ignore it later on. The entire east window of the Chapel was replaced during major restoration work in the late 19th Century. Therefore the light box was either understood and left intact, was recreated, or was simply created from scratch at that time. They plump for the second option, allowing them to maintain both great antiquity for their “discovery”, and also continuity with their overarching esoteric hypothesis. They cite an 1840s photograph of the top of the east window that supposedly shows the feature. If it is the image that appears heavily Photoshopped on the cover of their book, I can provide two similar images from the first half of that century for you to see for yourself; can you see anything resembling an aperture?

east-window-01090916.jpgEast window

No? How about in a closeup, alongside a modern-day equivalent:

East window exterior, then and now.

1844 – 2006

As you can see, although the structural arch is intact, the entirety of the window itself has been replaced. This was done during one of the restorations listed here, either 1861 or 1883. In my opinion, the photographic evidence shows clearly that there is no such aperture at the apex of that arch; if there were, it would coincide with the big, black, empty, unglazed space you see there. The real nail in the coffin comes when we look again at the masonry currently surrounding the “light box”:

The Rosslyn “light box”.rosslynb-marked.jpg

Note the comparatively fresh appearance and different styling of the 19th Century masonry, with its projecting rounded cusps, and the block containing the “light box” set into the arch apex. Note that this extends unbroken right to the point of the arch, but has obvious joints to the side and bottom where it abuts the other blocks comprising the window tracery below it. There is also a joint between the upper curves of the block and the window frame where it is cemented in place. These joints continue right through to the exterior of the window tracery – it is without doubt one solid, though deeply carved, block, with the “light box” an integral feature cut into it – entirely replacing the original tracery.
Butler and Ritchie’s claim that the light box is a feature of William Sinclair’s original design is, on the available evidence, entirely without basis. Instead, it appears to be a wholly 19th Century piece of work. This also renders the heretical-spiritual reasons offered for its presence completely redundant. They may be correct about a deliberate alignment vis St Matthew’s Day (though precise East-West situation is by no means unique), but any exploitation of this via the light box is likely to be a Victorian whimsy. They reluctantly acknowledge this, pointing out that before 1752, St Matthew’s Day did not in fact correlate with the Autumn equinox, though they insist that this was only possible due to the precise alignment of the building by the original builders. The implication is that there must have been an equivalent original feature that was recreated by the Victorian restorers. In fact, as we have seen, the evidence does not support this – if anything, it actively contradicts it. As for “Rosslyn Revealed” overall, despite its air of legitimacy it carries no more weight than the raft of other “alternative history” publications on the chapel. Long on speculation, short on evidence.

12 thoughts on “Seeing the light (box) at Rosslyn Chapel

  1. At last, someone has published the truth. I concur precisely with your conclusions, basing my evidence, as you do, on the Glasgow University Archives Hill and Adamson paper negatives and narrow the replacement of the medieval stone tracery to the 1861 ‘restoration’ (much criticised by the Association of Architects of Scotland) where acid and abrasives were used and indecipherably eroded stone bosses replaced with pristine ‘Masonic’ ones in the Lady Chapel. Prior to the 1860s there were lozenge-shaped lead windows i the rest of the Chapel. More important than Sir Gilbert Haye (cited by Ritchie and Butler) was the Augustinian priest, Fr Richard Augustine Hay, whose voluminous writings can be consulted in manuscript at the National Library of Scotland. Almost everything we know today about Rosslyn Chapel and the St Clair family comes from his transcriptions of now-lost family charters – apart from the one that came up for sale on Ebay a few months ago! The charters he transcribed prove that everything the St Clair family did was done quite openly with the knowledge of the King and the great officers of state, many of whom witnessed the signing of the charters. The St Clairs could not afford to get up to any alternative religious practices as the King would undoubtedly have had them executed! The connection between Rosslyn chapel and Freemasonry also began in the 1860s when the Earl of Rosslyn and architect David Bryce were replacing carvings in the Lady Chapel that had decayed beyond recognition. This is when the popular ‘Masonic’ carvings were inserted. As for the Templar connection – Knights Templar belonged to a religious order – they had to swear an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience to the order’s Rule. Most of the St Clair’s were married, most were rich and none obeyed any Rule set down by a religious order. The St Clairs were not Knights Templar but Crusaders. The full story is in my recently-published book, ‘Rosslyn Chapel Revealed’ (Sutton Publishing Ltd.)

  2. Hi Michael, and thanks for your most interesting comment. I’m glad to see that I’m on the right track with this one. Your book was already on my “to read” list – I’ll look out a copy ASAP.

  3. Hi there

    Thank you for clearing his up. Rosslyn Revealed is utter pants. It is a manifestation of tired, desperate, immature egos. It misleads readers ignores contradictory facts and is a total waste of money and time. I was utterly frustrated after I read it and demanded a refund from Amazon, which they gave me. They informed me that I was not the only person who had returned this book.

  4. The ultimate word on the question is Mark Bambrough’s heavily-illustrated article in The Stained Glass Journal (The British Society of Master Glass Painter Journal [Scotland issue vol. xxx, 2006] ‘Rosslyn Chapel: A Glazing History’. Mr Bambrough is the leading expert on medieval stained glass in Scotland. He confirms that the medieval ‘red light-box’ theory is not based on fact or evidence. Parts of the dismantled medieval stone tracery of the East Window are in the small exhibition down in the Crypt.

  5. Once again Michael, I greatly appreciate your input – I would not otherwise have been aware of Bambrough’s article. Now to find a copy…

    I now have my copy of Rosslyn Chapel Revealed (as opposed to Rosslyn Revealed!) and look forward to getting to grips with it.

  6. Terrific reading here. It’s so refreshing to see these subjects (Rosslyn in particular) given a critical examination. Some members of my family are guilty of perpetuating these myths and I, for one, grow increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of any scientific honesty some of my family encourage.

    I run the St. Clair / Sinclair DNA project worldwide and am about to come out with a compete report, scientifically based, as honest and critical as possible, in which I examine my family’s path through history and all these stories and myths against the hard cold truth of DNA.

    I’ll notify you when to look at the updated site.

    Keep up the good work and
    Kind Regards,

    Steve St. Clair

    1. Hi Steve, and thanks very much for the positive comments. It’s great to see someone who might otherwise be swept up in the romanticism actually taking a closer look at things. I’m sure there’s still plenty to be proud of and interested in without some of the claims that you’ll no doubt be debunking in the process.

      Otherwise, things seem to have been pretty quiet on the Rosslyn front – but I’m sure it won’t be long before someone else has a bash!

      Look forward to checking out your site.

  7. Thanks for debunking a book that passes itself off as history but is in fact, more murky and secretive Templar legends. (Boy those guys got around!).

    Tale a look at John Richie’s history of the Battle of Roslin online. It’s all speculative – but he is sure to place his Templars and Sinclairs right in the middle with William Wallace.

  8. I am a direct descendant of William Sinclair through his youngest son. William is my great, great etc grandfather 12 generations back. Living relatively near to the chapel I do like to visit it occasionally, but I can assure readers that the only things hidden there are my dead ancestors. It is our family tomb, built so that masses could be said for our dead in perpetuity.

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