Rosslyn Chapel’s musical cubes silenced?

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 mythomorph.com, 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.

second-swarbreck.jpg

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:

prentice-pillar-thumbnail.jpg

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.

stave-angel-vs-swarbreck-angel-copy.jpg

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.

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.

Update on the “Music of the Cubes”.

My first post was a book review of “The Music of the Cubes” by Thomas Mitchell, which tries to back up recent claims about supposedly hidden carvings in Rosslyn Chapel. Shortly after I posted, an observant reader (possibly my only reader at this point!) noticed that the publishing company for the book and CD associated with this “research” was making bold claims about the academic support for it:

“Using the Chladni research as reference, Thomas Mitchell discovered that the cubes, when translated, produce a meaningful and authentic medieval musical composition. This has been verified by Acoustic Science experts at Edinburgh University.”
(from http://www.divine-art.com/rosslynmotet.htm)

An quick email to and response from a staff member at Edinburgh University confirmed my suspicion that this is definitely NOT the case. Academics – please be aware that if you associate yourself with “alternative” historians and their ilk, it pays to be sure just what is being said about the relationship.

Rosslyn Chapel – “Music of the Cubes” (or should that be “Rubes”?)

Over the past couple of months, I have read, heard, and seen several press reports on the alleged discovery by father and son Thomas and Stuart Mitchell, of a secret piece of music encoded within the carvings inside the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian, Scotland. Because of the many existing and roundly debunked dubious claims surrounding the chapel in the wake of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, and more recently the “Da Vinci Code”, I was quite sceptical of these claims and wanted more information. The best online source turned out to be a Youtube video by his son Stuart showing the supposed matches between certain carvings and an 18th Century system of visualising sound/vibrations (“Chladni” patterns). A piece of music (click here for a sample from Stuart Mitchell’s website) has been composed, and is currently being performed and sold as being a reconstruction of genuine, forbidden music of the 15th century. I was hopeful that the book produced to accompany this, “The Music of the Cubes” would expand upon their methods and reasoning. I was disappointed.

Right off the bat, the book is absolutely crammed with pseudoscientific jargon about “Earth energies”, “sacred geometry” and “vortices”, and pages are given over to the author’s personal hypothesis on the state of being and the meaning of life. He also seems to have it in somewhat for conventional science and academia. He urges us to “abandon the logic and the concept of linear time as such”, as well as the “‘reasons why’ and ‘logical explanation’ mindset”. Well, why not? As Homer Simpson once said; “facts are meaningless! You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” But wait, it looks like science is coming round to this new way of thinking;

“…this has recently been proved to be the case by new research in quantum physics. If we wish to evolve as spiritual beings we have to do just that and adopt the “all possibilities” mindset of the Infinite Spiritual Being and step out of linear time. At source, we are in fact multidimensional beings with the ability to be omnipresent throughout time”.

“Great Scott!”, to paraphrase the aptly fictional scientist Doctor Emmett Brown. If you have read any pseudoscientific explanation for a paranormal phenomenon, you will without doubt have encountered the convenient catch-all of “quantum physics” name-checked. As an emerging and confusing area of scientific study, it is a most useful refuge for the “woo-woo” wishing to give their work some scientific-sounding basis. While we’re on the really whacked-out side of things, I also note that Stuart Mitchell’s other Youtube video applies the same ideas to… Saturn (with a handy link to Rosslyn halfway through!). Wow. Call me crazy, but I’ll stick to scientific method and evidence-based research. Let’s see if we can find any…

We are given little hint as to how the finished piece of music, the “Rosslyn Motet”, was actually constructed; only the carvings and corresponding sound-patterns for three notes are shown (plus one further variation shown on a preceding page, identical to Note 3 below but missing the central dot, and also apparently a “B” note). We are expected to take the remaining notes (there are 213 surviving “cubes”) and the rest of the composition on faith alone. Even these three carvings appear only somewhat like the sound-patterns Mitchell ascribes to them. See what you think below, but note that some lines and shapes are used, others ignored, apparently to make the pattern “fit” the carving:

cube-matches-correct.jpg
Three of the carvings “matched” with vibration patterns
Of course, you could argue this sort of subjective interpretation back and forth forever; it’s impossible to prove it either correct or incorrect – it’s unfalsifiable. Nowhere is the possibility entertained that these carvings could simply be decorative stylised flowers – the chapel is filled with such foliage. So that we might tell this from just another Virgin Mary in a grilled-cheese sandwich, we need some supporting evidence. We might also reasonably expect it to jive somewhat with what we already know about medieval history. Otherwise, on balance, we cannot in good conscience accept Mitchell’s assertion that the carvings represent notes.

As verification, we are offered Mitchell’s “stave angel”; one of the many biblical angel carvings in the chapel. He claims that this shows a five-line stave, upon which appear the same first three notes that he derived from the carvings/patterns, and that (for some reason) indicates a “G” (treble) clef. Another subjective call, this seems to me yet another case of making the evidence fit the theory: He believes that the angel’s fingers are pointing at certain lines, but this is far from obvious as you can see from this Mitchell-annotated image from this webpage.

Both features appear to be unusual (warning – linked PDF) for 15th Century music, but where this really falls down is in the claimed pitch of “A”. Mitchell’s own “A” pattern carving above corresponds to 435hz. Unfortunately for the author, it seems there is no evidence for such a high pitch in use at that time, and furthermore, medieval pitch was not fixed, but variable. In other words, the pattern might resemble an “A” note, but it is a mid-19th century version of the note, and therefore the indicated pitch is invalid.

There is a more traditional interpretation of this carving also, which is that of an angel proclaiming the “good news” of the gospel from a lectern. Finally, and confusingly, whereas the stave angel notes appear as B, C, A, in order by carvings/sound-patterns they are in the order C, A, B. If you’re losing the plot at this point, you’re not the only one! Mitchell says that this angel was intended to tip off any passing musicians to the secrets of the carvings, and yet this was not the way he “stumbled” upon the alleged notes.

It is also important to note that even for only four carvings, Mitchell is forced to employ two different sound-visualisation systems – Chladni Patterns, using metal plates of a certain thickness vibrated by a violin bow, and the later Eidophone, a tube capped with an elastic membrane and activated by the human voice. These systems post-date the Rosslyn carvings by 300 and 450 years respectively. An attempt to address this is made by co-opting a third, more contemporary system, that of Chinese gong-tuning. We are not told how these three systems might be reconciled; it is apparently enough to rely upon vague “what ifs”.

As far as the method of composition goes, the book tells us that the carvings are in note order on their respective pillars, top to bottom, bars of 9 and then 8 notes, with each pillar a “stave”, and the timing set (arbitrarily) at 6/8. But without knowing what the remaining notes might be, there is no way of reproducing his work to verify its validity. It’s possible to derive a piece of listenable music from any random series of numbers (even from the stock market!).

In fact the idea that there might be hidden music in the Chapel is not original (other hidden items have included the Holy Grail, and Christ’s noggin). The same goes for many other spurious claims dusted down and inserted into this book. Was Rosslyn a site of pagan pilgrimage? No; it was a private Christian church. Masonic symbolism? There is none in the chapel. A link with the Knights Templar? Sorry, no. Would it have been necessary to hide music like this from a proscriptive Church? Not likely. Was the chapel built with the help of Sir Gilbert Haye, who might have learned about sound-patterns from the Chinese? You guessed it, no evidence at all. Is it part of a worldwide network of energy-gathering ley lines and home to a “vortex to the consciousness of the Spiritual Being and thus the Holy Grail of spiritual progress”? I’ll let you decide that one.

There is no deliberate deception in evidence here, despite the much increased takings guaranteed by any association with a “secret” take on Rosslyn Chapel. The author appears to fully believe in what he writes, but that’s exactly the problem – this is a work that relies upon belief, to the exclusion of evidence. But when reported as fact by credulous journalists, the public are left with the impression that a genuine historical discovery has been made. It is nothing of the sort, and “The Music of the Cubes” is just another addition to the mountain of pseudohistorical literature on this humble, half-finished church. The only properly-researched book on the building that I have yet read is “The Rosslyn Hoax” by Robert Cooper – I suggest anyone interested in genuine history seek out a copy of that instead.

Update – Feb 2008. I received a threat of legal action from Stuart Mitchell regarding “copyright infringements”. I have therefore reconstructed what I assume to be the offending image, which did previously contain elements of a figure contained within Thomas Mitchell’s book. Photographic portions are (and were) in fact Copyright Mark Naples. Mark – if you wish these removed, you have only to ask.