Archive for September, 2007

Rosslyn Chapel’s musical cubes silenced?

September 2, 2007

In previous posts I have offered criticism of the Rosslyn Chapel “musical” code theories, specifically that put forward in Thomas Mitchell’s frankly bonkers book, and the end product; his son Stuart’s “Rosslyn Motet” piece of music. Both are, of course, for sale, as are tickets to live performances at the chapel itself. The whole exercise relies not upon quality research, reason and evidence, but rather assumption, speculation and assertion. Paradoxically, this makes it fairly immune to active debunking; the carved “cubes” might still represent notes, and there’s nothing that outright contradicts that (burden of proof be damned). Or is there?

There are many assumptions underpinning the Mitchell’s work. One that is that all of the cubes that we see in the chapel ceiling today are original to the 15th Century. The Mitchells have confidently accounted for the two missing cubes, but clearly the fewer original ones, the fewer the “notes” with which to reconstruct any underlying musical code. The chapel has a long history of neglect and repair, and real expertise is required to spot the more subtle alterations today. Could the Mitchells be working with the wrong notes? As it turns out, historical evidence shows that it’s very likely that they are. I found this, of all places, in a recent issue of the esoteric magazine “Atlantis Rising“, buried amongst pieces on secret Nazi flying saucers and “Intelligent” Design. An article by Jeff Nisbet of, as well as accusations of sneaky appropriation of the work of others, reproduces pieces of art by Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck and dated to 1837, which show the accumulated damage of over 200 years of neglect. Not only are lots of cubes missing from the arches, but those vital first few “notes” in particular have been obliterated from the first pillar or “stave” in the “motet”. In fact, whole blocks of cube-carrying masonry are absent, revealing the bare arches beneath (Rosslyn’s carvings were mostly appliqué). If this artwork is accurate, it blows any musical code hypothesis out of the proverbial water.

So, in the absence of period photographs, can we trust these sources? Or could one legitimately play the “artistic licence” card to keep the claims alive? Certainly some artists opted for a romantic or idealised impression of the evocative but visually complex interior. As documented in the wonderfully illustrated Rosslyn: Country of Painter and Poet however, Swarbreck was there to document the dilapidated original interior of the chapel prior to the first major restoration effort, due to begin that year. But how good a job did he do? Take a look at another of Swarbreck’s series, from the opposite side of the church. This shows just how many individual cubes, and how many supporting appliqué masonry blocks, were missing.


Artistic licence? Perhaps as far as individual cubes go, but it’s clear that until the restoration, a great number were missing. This second engraving by J & J Johnstone (1825), shows the same damage – missing cubes, even entire swathes of arch rib that would have held original cubes:

Just how many of the cubes are Victorian creations?

Finally, a work by J.A. Houston, again depicting loss to the stonework around the Apprentice Pillar, from a different angle, as it was in 1854:

Detail of print by John Adam Houston, 1854

Perhaps in over-eagerness to discredit the hypothesis, Nisbet attacks the historicity of Mitchell’s “stave angel”. This is supposedly the “Rosetta Stone” key to the sequence and interpretation of the cubes, hence a prime target. However, his claim that it is “not holding a musical stave but is, in fact, playing an instrument“, is by my estimation wide of the mark. Take a look at these two images:


A modern photo (left) and the same view in 1837 (right)

All of the salient features are there, save for the missing cubes and, in the case of the middle upright arch, the very blocks of stone they would be attached to. The “stave angel” is there, and given the limitation of scale, the artist has done a great job of representing it, even down to the fingers that Mitchell claims are pointing to specific lines on the stone. Now, whatever the angel is supposed to be holding (book, lectern, musical instrument, or even “stave”), it’s the same thing in both images.


Though it might suit my argument to be able to dismiss the angel as a modern piece, I’m not about to do so when the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact this serves only to further validate the artwork as an historical source vis the missing/replaced cube carvings. There are only two real get-out scenarios that I can conceive of. One is to assume that the 1837 restoration team was able to locate each and every missing cube and piece of masonry, either repair or create exact replicas of them, and finally somehow correctly relocate them at the correct place. Not impossible, but not likely either, especially not in the 19th Century, when rigorous authenticity in architectural and historical restoration had yet to appear on the radar. Just look at the radically different 1861 replacement east window – and that was intact when they started! The other possibility is that Swarbreck’s lithographs were commenced after the restoration had begun, and that the missing stonework had actually been deliberately removed for repair or copying for replacement. The work above by Houston suggests otherwise, at least as far as the individual (missing) cubes are concerned – they are still gone seventeen years later, making it rather unlikely that their original positions and carved faces could have been faithfully recreated. Finally, if this were the case, one has to wonder why the restoration team would removed some blocks whole, and simply knock other cubes from their blocks in such haphazard fashion. At this point it would take impressive intellectual gymnastics to explain how today’s sequence of cube patterns could possibly bear meaningful relation to that originally intended by William Sinclair and installed by his successor some time in the late 1400s/early 1500s.

In conclusion then, my opinion was that there was never any reason to believe that the Rosslyn cubes ever held a secret piece of music, or indeed any other code (though I will approach any new evidence for such a thing with interest). Now, thanks to contemporary artwork, we can go further and say that the pattern of cubes seen today is not 600 years old, but a composite of Renaissance and Victorian work. Anything resembling intent or design in the sequence (as well as individually) is therefore nothing more than co-incidence, with no more intrinsic meaning than the pattern of your nan’s kitchen wallpaper. Lovely church, though, isn’t it?

Edit – note that Jeff Nisbett of Mythomorph suggests the various designs on the cubes, like other elements in the chapel (notably the whole east window) may well have been introduced in their entirety by the restoration crews. In other words they may originally have been identical. Even if there is original variation, the original pattern of this is forever lost, whether or not it once contained hidden secrets.