Interior of St Matthew, Rosslyn
Engraving: from 'The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland', R.W. Billings (1845)
Source: RIBA British Architectural Library
Rosslyn is probably the most famous Medieval ecclesiastical building in Scotland. Its fame used to be based on its extraordinary carvings, now it is even better known for its part in Dan Harris’ novel The Da Vinci Code (2003). Begun around 1450, this was an extremely costly work. Rosslyn’s Gothic columns, arches and beams are encrusted with naturalistic carving. Unprecedented in Scotland, this is more like a barnacle-covered boat, or coral forest under the sea than a conventional church.
Rosslyn’s architecture is extraordinary, its history equally so. Left incomplete at the Reformation, it suffered under the hands of the reformers. Such an ornate declaration of God’s creative powers was at odds with the Calvinistic doctrine dominating Scotland from 1560 onwards. After 1592 the church was closed, becoming an empty shell, open to the elements, used even as a stable. Restoration, thankfully, began in 1730, and continues today.
Billings’ image concentrates on the emptiness of Rosslyn: chairs and altars are missing; niches, where statues once stood, vacant; and no visitor stirs the silence. The building is a wonder, but only that. How different this is to the plain Presbyterian chapels built from the Reformation onwards.