One of the many mysteries and legends that have grown up around Rosslyn is that of the apprentice pillar. The story tells of a master mason who, on being given a description of the design required for the pillar, decides to travel to Rome to see the original for himself. While on his long journey, his apprentice carves the pillar according to a vision sent to him in a dream. On his return the master mason slays his apprentice and is subsequently executed for the murder. These events are shown in some of the carvings in the chapel.
However, it is unclear whether this event actually took place in Rosslyn as the legend of the slain stonemason dates back to the murder of Hiram Abif at the time of the building of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. The tale of the murder of the Rosslyn apprentice could therefore be seen as a symbolic re-enactment of the original murder and would be of immense spiritual and emotional importance to today's Freemasons. To further confuse the issue, records show that the Bishop of St Andrews, on a visit to Rome, petitioned the Pope for a dispensation to cleanse Rosslyn of its pollution of a 'deed of violence' perpetrated within its precincts. The details of the violent deed are not recorded.
The veracity of the legend notwithstanding, nothing should detract from the beauty of the carving on the pillar. It is by far the most skilful and ornate of all the carvings in the Chapel, representing as it does Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life in Norse mythology, binding together heaven, earth and hell.
The St Clair family is descended from Vikings who settled in Normandy after being exiled from Norway. They fought on the side of William the Conqueror in 1066 and henceforth with Bruce in the 14th century. As Norse descendants, they would be familiar with the legend of Yggrasil.
The top of the pillar, that is, the crown of the tree, represents the 12 constellations of the Zodiac; the spiralling branches symbolise the planets and the roots of the trunk show the elements of the earth. At the base of the pillar are 8 serpents or dragons gnawing at the roots of the tree to rob it of its fruitfulness.
It is believed to represent the transformation of a pagan concept into the Christian Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden. In biblical terms, it symbolises the hermetic knowledge, of the secret understanding of the universe, given by the serpent to humanity. It would appear to be a curious mix of Celtic, Pagan, Norse, Greek and Mediaeval Christian spiritual references and is entirely at home in Rosslyn.
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