Several miles south of Edinburgh sits the gorgeous Rosslyn Chapel, made famous by Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. While it is the scene of the movie’s climax, Howard hardly shows the true beauty and artwork of the 15th-century chapel.
The history of the chapel is complicated and intriguing. It was originally constructed in 1446. The founder’s plans included a full church with a steeple high enough to be visible from Edinburgh several miles away. The choir took a full 40 years to craft, all hand-hewn from local sandstone. Upon the founder’s death, the project was scrapped, either from lack of funds or lack of interest. The choir that remains is impressive enough with more artwork than you can easily see in an afternoon. So how does it compare to the movie?
Rosslyn Chapel Exterior
In the movie, the Da Vinci Code’s Rosslyn Chapel scene begins with an aerial view of the chapel on a terraced hill in the Scottish countryside. The scene looks realistic enough. Upon visiting the location, you realize that the town of Roslin is missing from the background, not to mention the chapel’s administrative buildings. The forest in the movie is far denser than in real life, and there is no terraced hill.
However, the biggest difference is the exterior of the chapel. While the movie shows a mostly accurate representation of the building, this was not visible at the time of filming. A huge metal roof had been erected to keep out the elements while the chapel underwent extensive renovations. To show the chapel, Ron Howard had a 1/6th scale replica made and then filmed a fly-around of that.
As the movie’s two protagonists approach the front of the chapel, two ornate windows are visible to either side of the entrance during a one-second shot. In reality, the front enclave was a later addition to the chapel during the Victorian age. In the movie, the windows look like they would belong but they were added to make the entrance look grander.
Rosslyn Chapel Interior
As the duo enter the chapel, the camera pans down from the ceiling to show the Victorian stained-glass windows at the back of the chapel. The beautiful artwork on the ceiling is heavily under-exposed, and the movement is too quick to see any real detail.
The camera continues to move around the chapel, but at angles and apertures that prevent any actual artwork from being seen. Only a single relief of a face is shown briefly. Beyond that, the “Dance of Death” arch, the master and apprentice columns, the dragons and other mythical creatures, and even the ambiguous North American plants (brought to the Old World 50 years after the construction of the chapel) are all woefully missing from the movie.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, this is the point to do so. While the location of the movie’s climax is a spoiler of sorts, what comes next will really ruin the story if you haven’t yet watched.
Entering the Crypt
Before entering the climactic location of the movie, Robert and Sophie see their final clue. Above the entrance to the “crypt” is a Star of David, integrated into the decorations of the chapel. As the second actual piece of artwork shown from the interior of the chapel, it doesn’t actually exist in reality. Howard added it to the chapel to match the book, and his spraypaint left a green circle on the stone which is now referred to as the Hollywood Circle. Perhaps not as devastating as what The Beach did to Phi Phi Leh Island in Thailand, but nonetheless a small mar to the beauty of the chapel.
Robert and Sophie continue down into the “crypt.” It’s actually the lower chapel and was the first constructed part of the building, potentially on the ruins of an even older castle. The actual crypt of the chapel is beneath the main choir, although it was filled with rubble centuries ago and the entrance blocked up. Rumor has it that a very real treasure could be buried in the crypt, but it has yet to be excavated and discovered.
From there, the characters duck under a chain labeled “Private” and into…Paramount Pictures 323 miles south in London. Sorry, the tiny anteroom in the chapel is really just a storeroom without any stars on the ceiling or rug on the floor. Any other spoilers would be unnecessary, as they were filmed at the studios. The next few minutes have nothing to do with Rosslyn Chapel.
The Apprentice’s Column
Finally, as Robert and Sophie leave the crypt, we get several views of the Apprentice’s Column, perhaps one of the most beautiful works of art in the chapel. It’s significantly more intricate than the nearby Master’s Column, which is not shown in the movie. For the full story about the two columns, you’ll just have to visit Rosslyn Chapel yourself.
In my opinion, the chapel is far better than the movie portrayed. Tom Hanks was quoted saying “Rosslyn Chapel was all one could imagine or hope for,” and Dan Brown said, “When I decided to write The Da Vinci Code, I knew that its finale would have to take place at the most mysterious and magical chapel on earth — Rosslyn.”
Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the chapel so perhaps the movie is a good way to see the interior. A far better option would be to visit the chapel yourself.
Also (barely) shown in the movie are the remains of Rosslyn Castle. Situated behind the chapel, down a woodland path, across a bridge and atop a steep hill are the remains of a castle originally built around the end of the 14th century. Although it was destroyed in 1544 and rebuilt shortly after, it surprisingly has been continuously occupied all the way into present time. A part of the castle is currently the holiday accommodations of the Earl of Rosslyn.
The film shows Robert and Sophie on the bridge to the ruins, although the scene jumps back and forth between two spots several feet apart. The chain with a “Private” sign blocking the path which leads up to the Earl’s accommodations is clearly seen in the scene. Two brief wide-angle shots show one of the two ruined walls from the original castle.
The remaining landscape around the castle is simply stunning, with a small creek on one side of the hill and a large river on the other. Several trails weave through the forest, and one tree climbs out of a stone wall, reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
No story about Rosslyn Chapel would be complete without mentioning Mr. William, the resident cat. Although he belongs to a family in the nearby town of Roslin, he has been spending all his time at the chapel for the past 13 years. He is often found sleeping on one of the pews or posing for pictures outside the chapel.
Visiting Rosslyn Chapel
Rosslyn Chapel is open all year except for Christmas Eve and Day, and New Year’s Eve and Day. Tour guides give a story about the chapel every hour on the hour for about 20 minutes. You can either sit in the pews and listen or explore the chapel during the story. Expect to spend 1-2 hours in the chapel. If you want to see the castle too, plan for another hour or so. To get to Rosslyn Chapel, take the 37 bus from Princes Street or South Bridge in the city center. The ride takes about 50 minutes and the bus driver can help you with which stop to disembark from. There is a large parking lot if you plan to drive. The visitor center has a cafe for food and drink, toilets and a large shop with every imaginable souvenir for the chapel.
- Location: Chapel Loan, Roslin EH25 9PU
- Sept-May: Mon-Sat 9:30 to 17:00; Sun 12:00 to 16:45
- Jun-Aug: Mon-Sat 9:30 to 18:00; Sun 12:00 to 16:45
- Admission: Adults – £9; concession – £7; children – free with an adult ticket
- Phone: (+44) 0131 440 2159
- Email: [email protected]
- Website: Rosslyn Chapel
- What to bring: A camera for the chapel’s exterior, money for souvenirs and boots for hiking down to Rosslyn Castle.
- Best time of year to visit: Jan-Dec. The chapel is great for rainy days, but sunny is better for a hike around the castle and forest.
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