← Westt

↑ North

→ East

↓ South

The black portions of the above ground plan shows Rosslyn Chapel as it exists today (albeit without the Victorian addition of the Baptistery to the west wall). The grey portions show the foundations of the church which were not built upon, e.g. the Nave and the Transepts.

Whilst many acknowledge that Rosslyn Chapel is unique, in Scotland, they do so by stating that it is unique only because of its internal decoration and not because of its design or purpose. A discussion of Rosslyn Chapel’s purpose has been examined exhaustively elsewhere (see the book review page).

Here we shall discuss, briefly, the overall design of Rosslyn Chapel within the context of Scottish religious architecture.

Because of the violent nature of Scottish history much of its pre-17th century built heritage has been reduced to ruins. In comparison to England, from whence much of the violence emanated, Scottish architecture is less in quantity and quality. There was little point in building a high quality edifices in the knowledge that there was a constant danger of its destruction. The number of buildings is smaller than in England because the population was, and is, much smaller in Scotland. Presently the population of Scotland is approximately 6 million, about 10% of the total UK population. By that yardstick it unsurprising that the number of buildings are fewer in number that one might imagine. Were Scotland stands out in terms of its built heritage is in its castles. Many are ruinous but recently there have been a surge in interest in buying and restoring some. However, here we are concerned with Scottish Collegiate Churches such as Rosslyn Chapel.

Most Scottish churches are built to the traditional cruciform design. This design is, unsurprisingly, based on the form of cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The Passion Cross ( † ) forms the basis for much western ecclesiastical architecture. The short ‘head’ of the cross (that is the piece above the ‘arms) forms the choir. The arms of the crucifix to which the wrists of Jesus Christ were nailed are translated into the transepts and the longest portion of the crucifix, the very end of which was planted into the ground, became the nave of western Christian churches. The head of the Passion Cross, when used in church architecture always pointed east – towards the place of the birth and ministry of the Son of God. Here then is further evidence that Rosslyn Chapel conforms entirely to the religious beliefs and principals of the Christian religion in the 15th century. The head of the cross, the choir, was usually built first as it was the smallest and, therefore, the easiest to begin with. In the case of Rosslyn Chapel we can see from the above ground plan, showing the foundations of the entire structure, that it was planned to be of the standard cruciform design common to many other Scottish Collegiate Churches and other ecclesiastical structure of the period.

Given the existence of foundations for the transepts and nave, which were never built upon, it is clear that William St Clair of Rosslyn intended to erect a far larger structure of a standard cruciform design common to the period and to his status as a locally powerful landlord. A comparison with other collegiate churches build at approximately the same time as Rosslyn Chapel, demonstrates a number of similarities. One example is Seton Collegiate Church just 6 miles from Rosslyn Chapel, which is laid out in the same way and also has similar myths and legends associated with it although knowledge of this is not well known. To go to the page which discusses the similarities of Seton Collegiate Church and Rosslyn Chapel click here.