Rosslyn is, however, a building of extraordinary complexity, rich in meaning, and no single spiritual stream can claim predominance in the chapel’s design, unless we weave together a number of strands into a single entity that we can call Esoteric Christianity (though, for some, even that would be controversial).
The Templar influence in the construction of Rosslyn must be understood as something of a riddle, as the Order of the Knights of the
was dissolved about a century and a half before the first stones were laid for the foundations of Rosslyn. No doubt the esoteric nature of the Templars’ unique spirituality survived the cruel end of the Order and is to be found in other places besides Rosslyn, where it joins other esoteric streams; among them, as I hope to show here, Kabalah. Temple
Kabalah, the word means ‘tradition’, or ‘that which is received’ in Hebrew, is said to be the unwritten tradition that accompanies the destinies of the Children of Israel through all their sufferings and wanderings, though there are books which embody the Kabalistic relationship to the world, such as the Zohar, the Book of Splendour. Kabalah contains mysteries that can only be communicated through symbol and imagery; it is theosophical in its nature. One of the most commonly seen features of Kabalistic study is the Sephirotic Tree. Certain spiritual qualities are brought together and linked in a way that resembles the leaves of a tree.
If we consider the Sephirot as indicating divine qualities, we can relate each quality to members of the Hierarchy of angels. In this way, Kether is related to the Seraphim, Chokhma to the Cherubim and Binah to the Thrones. In the second hierarchy, Chesed is connected to the Kyriotetes, Geburah to the Dynamis and Tiphereth to the Exusiai. In the third hierarchy, Netzach is identified with the Archai, Hod to the Archangels and Yesod to the Angels. The last one, Malkuth, represents the Human Being, whose destiny, it is to be hoped, is to become one with the Hierarchies in the far distant future.
We can also connect the Sephirot to the seven planets, so that Saturn belongs to Binah, Jupiter to Chesed, Mars to Geburah, the Sun to Tiphereth, Venus to Hod, Mercury to Netzach, the Moon to Yesod and the Earth to Malkuth. One can go further, and see how the Ten Commandments of Moses connect with the Sephirot and the planets. Then we see, for instance, that the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’ is in the place of Mercury, god of doctors, merchants and thieves. ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ is found in close connection with Venus. ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’, the injunction not to give a false reflection of the truth is connected with the Moon, whereas the commandment that brings us face to face with the immediate world around us, telling us that it is better not to covet our neighbour’s ox, ass, servants, wife and so forth, belongs to Malkuth, the world in which we live. One can, in fact, find connections with each commandment and its planetary Sephira (singular of Sephirot). The first two commandments we can see in connection with those most exalted members of the hierarchies, the Seraphim and the Cherubim.
The Traditional Sephirotic Tree
Left Pillar Centre Pillar Right Pillar
Justice Mildness Mercy
Study of Kabalah came to prominence among the Jewish scholars who gathered together in
during the 13th century. From there it was taken up by, among others, Ramon Lull and, most importantly for our purposes, Pico della Mirandola and, who reinterpreted Kabalah in a purely Christian way. Both Lull and della Mirandola claimed to have made Jewish converts to Christianity on the strength of their Kabalistic studies. Spain
Looking at the dates of the Christian Kabalists, it seems highly unlikely that they could have had anything to do with the building of Rosslyn; even Pico della Mirandola, who died in 1494, is unlikely to have been able to exert much of an influence over Earl William Sinclair, his wife Elizabeth Douglas and Sir Gilbert de la Haye, the architects and designers of Rosslyn. And yet…
When we look at the version of the Sephirotic Tree of the English alchemist and Rosicrucian, Robert Fludd, we find that he has turned the tree round into its mirror image. This is not surprising when we compare, for instance, the design of a Christian church with a Jewish temple. We enter a temple from the east, and move towards the Holy of Holies, in the west. In a Christian church, we enter from the west and move towards the altar in the east. Just as the temple is reversed, so is the Sephirotic Tree in a Christian context.
However, in May of 1924, Rudolf Steiner gave a talk to the workers engaged on the reconstruction of the Goetheanum. This is the headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society, containing the offices that take a close interest in anthroposophical endeavours all over the world. It was his habit to speak to them on a wide variety of topics, and on this occasion, he gave another picture of the Sephirotic Tree. In common with other Christian Kabalists, such as Fludd, he maintained the mirror image of the traditional Hebrew version, but he put some of the spiritual qualities, the Sephirot, in different places. Tiphereth, Beauty, he put in the place of Geburah, Strength. He did the same with Hod, Splendour, and Yesod, Foundation.
At first, one might be tempted to think that Rudolf Steiner simply made a mistake, but as we place Steiner’s Sephirotic Tree over the ground plan of Rosslyn, we find something quite unexpected, and extraordinary. First, we realise that implicit in Steiner’s version, for example, Geburah now connects with the Exusiai, or Elohim; the spirits of form, and the life of the Sun. This seems to me to be a happy adjustment of the more traditional picture. Other changes have also taken place; but let us consider Rosslyn and its carvings, and see what is revealed when we compare Steiner’s picture of the Sephirotic Tree with the layout of the chapel.
First, we notice the three pillars in the east of the building. Facing them from the west, we see that the south aisle, containing images from the Old Testament, including Moses and Abraham, is the one connected to the pillar of Justice, while the aisle in which Christ’s Passion is depicted, the north aisle, is dominated by the pillar of Mercy. The central aisle is watched over by a representation of the Madonna and Child, and we feel the rightness of seeing this in connection with the quality of Mildness.
In the east of the chapel is represented the Magi of Matthew’s gospel, the Three Kings, as well as the Kingly child that they journeyed to honour with their gifts. Another king, Robert the Bruce is depicted in the east of Rosslyn. Whether heavenly or earthly, Kether, the Crown belongs to this part of the building. Moving to the north, we find Abraham, Isaac and Melchizedek shown. The patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and the Priest-King Melchizedek represent the quality of Binah, intelligence, which the Hebrew people were to develop through generations, on behalf of humankind. Opposite them, in the south aisle, there is a carving of an angelic being holding a book closed against his breast. Here we see Chokhma, wisdom that has committed the contents of the Book to heart, and no longer needs to open it to find wisdom.
Rudolf Steiner’s Sephirotic Tree
Left Pillar Centre Pillar Right Pillar
Left Pillar Centre Pillar Right Pillar
Mercy Mildness Justice
We cross back to the north aisle, and find a picture of devotion. Another angelic form surrenders a heart to the laws of Moses and his priestly rule. Not far from this carving, we see a representation of the figure known as St. Veronica, who braved the anger of the Pharisees and the wrath of the mob to give what help she could to her beloved teacher on His way to crucifixion, using nothing but her best cloth to wipe His brow. There is beauty in these devotional scenes, and we are here in the place of Tiphereth.
In the place opposite them, in the north aisle, we see the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, symbol of Mercy, and the bearded figure of John the Divine, pointing to the page of his gospel where we find the High Priestly prayer. This is the place of Mercy, or Chesed, and the quality Gedulah, which means Greatness.
In the centre of the chapel, in the aisle of Mildness, we find the place of Strength of Life, Geburah, and above our heads we see the inverted pyramid pointing to the centre of the chapel to mark that place.
Returning to the south aisle, we find the figure of St. Margaret, holding the fragment of the True Cross, which was her most treasured possession in life, in honour of which she founded the Abbey of Dunfermline. It is no exaggeration to say that the moral life of
was, for many years, founded on Queen Margaret’s saintly example. Next to her we find a knight, symbol of manly virtue, and close to these two we find a couple bound by a scroll of scripture, exemplifying the pious life. This is the place of Yesod, or Foundation. Scotland
Facing these carvings, in the north aisle, we find a carving showing a mother and child resolutely turning away from a demon with ass’s ears, to face an angel bearing a long-stemmed cross. Near to these are representations of the Crucifixion and the tomb empty on the Third Day. Here are clear pictures of Overcoming, or Netzach; the ordinary person’s victory over temptation, and Christ’s victory over Death.
Moving to the west, standing in the west door, we look back into the chapel, and see the wealth of carving, the stained-glass windows and the wonderfully decorated ceiling, and we feel the splendour of the building. This is the place of Hod, or Splendour. Leaving the chapel and stepping out into the fresh air, we are in the world again, the realm in which we all find ourselves striving together. This is Malkuth, the Kingdom, or Realm of human activity.
Looking at the traditional version of the Sephirotic Tree, we can find no clear connection between it and Rosslyn. Even turning to Fludd’s reversed Tree, there are difficulties in seeing connections. Yet with Steiner’s picture, we find a clear resonance between the Kabalistic Tree and the interior of Rosslyn Chapel. Is it possible that Sinclair, Elizabeth Douglas and Gilbert de la Haye had some clear understanding of those esoteric Christian principles underlying the transformed Kabalah? Certainly, if we accept Rudolf Steiner’s version of the Tree of the Sephirot, we find a reflection of it in Rosslyn that is as clearly depicted as it is remarkable.