Michael Turnbull’s tale is a nuanced historical one that does much to explain the pre-Reformation function of Rosslyn chapel’s design and ornamentation.
The building is soaked in the sacramental vision of the old faith and, as elsewhere the work of Eamon Duffy has shown us, pre -Reformation churches at their most decorative provide in their imagery a repository of spiritual wisdom for the pre-literate age.
Clearly, Rosslyn functions in this way; among a wealth of very nicely produced photographs, we find attention to the sculpting, for instance, of ‘The Corporal Works of Mercy’ and of The Sins. Angels, dragons and other such iconography speak not so much of a great code to be cracked, but of a universal vision of spiritual good and evil that the modern age so often wants simply to unravel into a story of man’s alternating ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ motivations (the Manichean heresy has been surprisingly enduring and now provides the bedrock of much ‘modern’ psychology).
Turnbull restores sanity in summing up the connection (or lack of it) between Rosslyn and the Knights Templar. His comments on comparative architecture between Rosslyn and other edifices demonstrate how natural, if still exceptional, the church is in its conception. He re-evaluates, perhaps rehabilitates, the contribution of Fr Augustine Hay (1661-1736/7) to the recording of the history of Rosslyn in a way that will clearly attract subsequent scholarly interest.
The inspiration taken by writers such as Burns and Scott from the environs features, as does the remarkable phenomenon that was the Community of the Transfiguration, brainchild of Brother John Halsey (Anglican) and Roland Walls (Anglican chaplain at Rosslyn and latterly Catholic priest).
These are only a few features of a visually hugely attractive book, appropriately enough, the narrative of which spins out to connections spanning ‘ordinary’ social and cultural history and the creative and spiritual wellsprings of human beings in a way much more richly layered than anything The Da Vinci Code is capable of envisioning.
Like Rosslyn itself, this book is rather delicious and I would urge anyone with an interest in the Scottish religious sensibility to read it