Rosslyn Chapel, Kabalah, The Beatitudes & Rudolf Steiner
The chief theme in this article is that of transformation. It may seem odd, on the surface, to bring together such disparate elements as a church in Scotland, an ancient Hebrew path of initiation, the early teachings of Christ and the picture of the human being in physical, soul and spiritual detail as given by Rudolf Steiner. But I hope to show a direct connection linking them all, and that transformation, in particular of the self, is the key to the connection.
In Rudolf Steiner’s book Theosophy, he describes how the human being consists not only of a physical body, but also of far subtler soul and spiritual aspects that he characterises at some length. To put it in an entirely inadequate nutshell, he says that beyond the purely physical body, we are infused through and through with a body of life forces that allows us to live, to grow, to have an immune system, and so on. This he calls the etheric body. We also have a soul body, or astral body, containing our sympathies and antipathies, drives, desires and urges. He further elaborates on our soul make-up, saying that we have a sentient soul that is the basis of our sense impressions and is connected with our life of feeling. Then there is our ability to think logically and to solve problems, which he calls our intellectual soul, or mind soul. Beyond this aspect of our psychic nature, we have what Steiner calls our consciousness soul, or spiritual soul, through which we have the capacity to appreciate and to ally ourselves with what is good, beautiful and true. The more we are able to do this, Steiner says, the more we are able to realise within ourselves the qualities of the Spirit Self. This is a purely spiritual - as opposed to soul – quality, and it depends on the activity of our essential self, to become a living, conscious part of our soul-spiritual constitution. Steiner also refers to two other, higher aspects of the human spirit, whose full, conscious integration into our being remains work for the far future. These aspects he calls Life Spirit and Spirit Human. Readers are encouraged to explore for themselves this topic at its proper length in Theosophy. Its relevance here should become clear as I hope to show how these subtler aspects of the human being are recognized and celebrated in the fabric of Rosslyn Chapel.
The chapel, also known as the Collegiate Church of St. Matthew, stands some eight miles to the south of Edinburgh. It has something of a reputation these days of being a place of interest after Dan Brown set the climax of his book The Da Vinci Code in the chapel. Certainly several thousand visitors come to the chapel every year to see for themselves the extraordinary carvings and the Apprentice Pillar, and to feel for themselves the strange atmosphere of the place. It has an air of mystery about it that some people attribute to its being the hiding place for the Holy Grail. A strong tradition links the chapel to the Knights Templar, even though that Order of Knighthood was dissolved over a century before work on the chapel began. The suggestion is that the Templar Knights continued their work in a clandestine way, and that the chapel is part of that work. Certainly, the Sinclair family, who built the chapel, were closely connected to the Templars.
The chapel was built between the years 1446 and 1487, chiefly under the guidance of the third Earl of Orkney, William Sinclair, with the active help of his wife Elizabeth Douglas, and the scholar and esotericist Sir Gilbert de la Haye. Many agree that the true treasure of Rosslyn is the wonderful carvings that are everywhere to be found within the chapel.
In the book The Knights Templar, published by Temple Lodge Press and edited by Gil McHattie, I contributed a chapter in which I tried to describe how the carvings in Rosslyn Chapel can be seen to represent – among other things – the qualities of the Sephirotic Tree, that mysterious graphic representation of spiritual archetypes that comes to us from the ancient traditions of Judaism. The word Kabalah means something like ‘tradition’, or ‘that which is given’. In that article I was inspired by two lectures on the Kabalah and the Sephirotic Tree given by Rudolf Steiner some fourteen years apart; first from the lecture cycle on the Gospel of Matthew, given in Berne, Switzerland on the 8th September 1910, and second in a talk given to workers engaged in the construction of the second Goetheanum building in Dornach, Switzerland, on May 10th, 1924. These two lectures give what I believe to be the clearest and most accessible introduction to Kabalah that I have found. Scholars of Kabalah will quickly see that my understanding of this profound and beautiful study is very limited. It is important to note, however, that in the lecture given in 1910, Steiner is careful to connect his observations on the theme of Kabalah with the individuality Jeschu ben Pandira. Steiner makes it clear in his lecture of 1910 that an understanding of the Sephirotic Tree and the principles underlying it was central to a path of initiation for the Essene followers of Jeschu ben Pandira.
Jeschu ben Pandira lived some hundred years before Christ. He was clearly a remarkable teacher, and was associated with the Essenes, the tribe of Jesse, whose way of life ran parallel with traditional, Orthodox Judaism, rather than being fully integrated with it. For instance, the Essenes followed a monastic life, separate from the secular world as far as possible. They wore undyed garments, were healers and gardeners; according to some they were vegetarian; they observed a solar, rather than a lunar calendar. I do not think that it is too great a step to suppose that the Essenes’ orientation to the world of the spirit was also significantly different from that of traditional Judaism, at least in some respects. The observance of a solar calendar alone is suggestive of this, when we remember that at that time, the cosmos was not thought of as the limitless, lifeless space that seems to be the current picture in our culture. People then felt that the movements of the heavenly bodies affected their lives and the world of nature; thus it mattered whether one oriented oneself by the sun or the moon. (In some ways, indeed, the Essene way of life has parallels and similarities with the Cistercian monks, who were so close to the Knights Templar.) What singled out Jeschu ben Pandira was his teaching that, although in his time, the world of the spirit was only to be experienced in a dreamlike way, the time was approaching when it would be possible to enter the spiritual world in full consciousness.
This distinction between traditional Judaism and the Essene way of life could account for the slight differences between the traditional picture of the Sephirotic Tree and the one given by Steiner in 1924. Steiner’s placing of the Sephirot is slightly different from that used by kabalists before him. He numbers them in the same way as former Kabalists, but his arrangement of them on the page, and hence their relationship to the human being, is significantly different. Steiner places the human being at the centre of the Tree, but for instance, the qualities of Hod and Yesod have changed places. It is not easy to understand why, but perhaps the following considerations might suggest a reason. In the traditional picture, Yesod, Foundation, is connected with human sexuality and reproduction. The bloodline was highly important for the Children of Israel. It was the foundation of their strength. However, with the coming of Christ, the family/tribal relations lost their importance. Hod or Sympathy takes the place of Yesod or Foundation, thus suggesting a new freedom in human relations. Certainly, those familiar with Steiner’s work know that he was extremely careful in esoteric matters, and it is most unlikely that he got it wrong. Rather, I suspect that he was working with an alternative form developed among Essene teachers such as Jeschu ben Pandira, whose teachings anticipated Christ’s coming. We know that Christian kabalists such as Ramon Lull and Robert Fludd also employed a different version of the Sephirotic Tree; one that was, as it were, a mirror image of the traditional version, and no doubt they had good reasons for doing so. Perhaps they wanted to indicate that what once came to us from outside, through dreamlike revelation, now has to be sought for within us?
However, what was revelatory and exciting for my own researches was that Steiner’s arrangement of the Sephirot accorded much more happily with the placing of certain carvings in Rosslyn Chapel than the traditional picture of the Tree. Having heard from various sources that Kabalah was to be seen in Rosslyn Chapel, I was never able to see this for myself, until I applied Steiner’s picture to it.
We can imagine the human being at the centre of the Sephirotic Tree, a being in space, standing in the world, his foundations supporting him, his head perhaps worthy of a crown; various spiritual qualities available to him – if he is willing to do the work of transformation to bring them from outside, into full integration within his deeper being.
I have written elsewhere (in A Rosslyn Treasury published by Floris Books) about my conviction that the underlying theme – and to some extent the meaning of Rosslyn Chapel – is, once again, transformation. This applies, I believe, to the symbolism of the carvings: rather than remaining fixed in one meaning, they grow the more one tries to penetrate their significance.
Rudolf Steiner is very clear in his lectures on the Matthew Gospel, as mentioned above, that the Sephirotic Tree represents a forward-looking path of initiation that predates Christianity. Some more orthodox Jews held it to be heretical, and Jeschu ben Pandira was stoned to death and his body hung in a tree. Essentially, Jeschu ben Pandira was saying that in time to come, one would be able to experience higher worlds in full, waking consciousness, as opposed to the dreamy consciousness that was experienced by those undergoing initiation in the time of ben Pandira. The world in which our essential being is active and fully conscious, the world in which we live and work, is known in Kabalah by the name ‘Malkhut’, which means ‘realm’ or ‘kingdom’.
The lecture Steiner gave on 9th September 1910 that immediately follows the description and exegesis of Kabalah, deals with the Sermon on the Mount. This is an important episode in the life of Christ. It is His first public teaching. In particular, Steiner refers to the first part of the Sermon, that section known as The Beatitudes (from the Latin Beati sunt… – Blessed are… ) Steiner relates these to the nine fold nature of the human being as mentioned above as being described in his book Theosophy, and elsewhere. It appeared to me on reading and rereading these lectures on Matthew’s Gospel that the lecture concerning Jeschu ben Pandira and the Sephirotic Tree, and the lecture on the Sermon on the Mount belong together, as though the Sermon on the Mount is in some ways the fulfilment of the Essene Kabalah. Moreover, it seemed to me that one can identify carvings in Rosslyn Chapel with the Beatitudes as interpreted by Rudolf Steiner. However, reading the chapel in this way always demands a certain delicacy of touch. Perhaps it is also important to remember that Rudolf Steiner never, to my knowledge, said anything about Rosslyn Chapel. Perhaps he was not even aware of its existence.
To follow my characterisation of the chapel carvings, the reader must trace a path within the chapel from place to place. I am now imagining that we are standing in the place of Kether, or Crown, symbolised by the Three Kings of Matthew’s Gospel, and the Christ-child Himself, represented on a pendent boss in the eastern end of the building. King Robert the Bruce is also represented in this part of the chapel. But if we now turn and face westwards, and look up at the eastern side of the pendent boss, we see depicted the Shepherds of Luke’s Gospel.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with the first of the so-called Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Rudolf Steiner points out in the lecture given on 9th September 1910 that the old atavistic clairvoyance had more or less died out by the time of Christ. People no longer had a direct vision of spiritual worlds, and thus became, as it were, ‘beggars for the spirit’, or indeed, ‘poor in spirit’. An illustration of this is the description in Luke’s Gospel of the appearance of the angel to the Shepherds, ‘abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.’ It is clear that this angelic appearance was no ordinary occurrence, when Luke tells us that the Shepherds ‘were sore afraid’. They, like the rest of humankind, had become beggars for the spirit. The physical body had become, in a way more earthbound, and hence less open to higher worlds, but now the path to the spirit was opening again. Rudolf Steiner associates this Beatitude with the physical body.
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Rudolf Steiner indicates that perhaps a better translation might be: ‘Blessed are they that suffer.’ He says further: “In the etheric body lies the principle of suffering…[The] seat of the suffering must …be looked for in the etheric body.” With this in mind, let us move to the area of the chapel that can be associated with the Sephira (singular of Sephiroth) Chokhma, or Wisdom. Here we find depicted The Dance of Death on diagonal ribs at the eastern end of the chapel. People from all walks of medieval life are shown dancing with the figure of Death, a potent picture of suffering. Suffering is, by its nature, very hard to undergo, but one can perhaps feel that it is shaping us into the form that at some level, is ours alone, and so is somehow necessary. However, it takes wisdom to achieve such an insight into our suffering.
Immediately adjacent to these carved depictions are two architraves, at right angles to each other. One shows Christ upright among His sleeping disciples, which one can interpret as full ‘I’ (essential self) consciousness coming to those who are still sleeping – which is to say, in a state where physical and etheric bodies are present, but the ‘I’ and soul body are, so to speak, absent. At right angles to this architrave is another, showing Christ surrounded by plant growth, or what one can call the etheric world. Here then, we see pictures of suffering – the Dance of Death – next to pictures indicating the etheric realm of abundant life, revealed both in the human being and in the world.
Steiner says that this Beatitude promises new force imparted to the etheric body. The Sephira Chokhma, Wisdom, we see illustrated in the corner of the nearest window, by the figure of a man with angel wings, holding the closed book of wisdom to his breast. The wisdom is no longer on the page; it has been stored in the heart.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. We now move towards the southern side of the building, to the part of the chapel where we see the Sephira Binah, or Intelligence. This Beatitude Steiner connects with the astral body, but an astral body in which Luciferic arrogance and will to power have been overcome. In this part of the chapel we find an illustration carved into an architrave connected with the legend from the Apocrypha of the Babylonian King Darius, who set his three bodyguards the task of finding an answer to the question: What is the strongest? The answers were to be placed under Darius’s pillow as he slept, and the winner would receive what he desired at the King’s hand. One bodyguard answered that wine is the strongest. Another, clearly with an eye to advancement, said that the King is the strongest. The Hebrew bodyguard, Zerubabel, said that wine is surely strong, as it can render powerful men unable to function. The King, too, is strong, but he, Zerubabel, had seen the King acquiescing to the wishes of a pretty woman, who was able to bend him to her will. Therefore, women are stronger than the king: but Truth bears all away.
King Darius liked Zerubabel’s answer best of the three, and asked him what he wished for. Zerubabel asked that he lead his people, the Hebrews, back to their own land, to rebuild the Temple of Solomon that the Babylonians had destroyed as they conquered the Children of Israel. Perhaps unexpectedly for an all-powerful ruler of the time, Darius agreed to this, and Zerubabel led the Children of Israel back to their own land, singing songs of joy as they went. According to the legend then, Darius overcame his kingly arrogance, giving the ancient world a model of meekness that is not powerlessness, but an intelligent acceptance of personal criticism implied in Zerubabel’s answer to his question. As for the quality of intelligence, it is represented in the carvings of Abraham and Isaac, at the capital of the supporting pillar in the chapel, opposite the figure of the priest-king Melchizedek, who greeted Abraham with bread and wine on the site where Jerusalem and the Temple were to be built. Rudolf Steiner tells us elsewhere that it was the task of Abraham’s descendants to develop intellectual knowledge on behalf of mankind.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. We cross the chapel once again to the place of Chesed, (freedom, sometimes translated as mercy) or Gedulah (strength). Each of these qualities is associated with the same position on the Sephirotic Tree. The Kabalistic qualities here are illustrated by the carving of the Lamb of God in the north aisle of the chapel. This is the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice on Golgotha for the sake of humankind, indicating mercy. Following the event of Golgotha, Christians believe that Christ overcame Death. Thus, strength is also symbolised in the carving of the Lamb of God.
Close by this carving is one of a bearded figure pointing at a page of a book that he holds open at his breast, like one who has developed a longing for the spirit as strong as the longing for food and drink, and yearns to share with others the teaching that has meant so much to him.
Steiner says: “If a man desires to experience the Christ within himself, he must develop in his sentient soul a longing as strong as the instinctive longing he otherwise feels in his body and calls hunger and thirst…What man can develop through the Christ-power within him has always been referred to as ‘thirst after righteousness’. And when he fills his sentient soul with the Christ-power, he can find within himself the possibility of satisfying his thirst after righteousness.”
Clearly, Steiner associates this Beatitude with the sentient soul.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Here again, Steiner points out that the true meaning of this Beatitude is not quite conveyed properly by the translation, but that it contains an idea that is hard to express. He renders it as: “What streams forth streams back again.” We are now standing in the place of Geburah, also meaning strength, but strength that contains an excess of energy. The place of Geburah is in the centre of the chapel, just before the altar. Looking around us, the whole interior of the chapel is to be seen, streaming towards us. Of course, it lies within our freedom what we reflect back to the chapel. However, this is a point in the building that is traditionally associated with its deepest mysteries. A pendent boss in the ceiling above, in the form of an inverted pyramid, is said to point to the source of the chapel’s strength.
Steiner makes the link between this Beatitude and the intellectual soul:
“In the lower members – physical body, etheric body, astral body and Sentient Soul, too – man is connected with certain divine Beings who penetrate into these members, and whatever qualities he develops there are carried up again to these divine Beings. But whatever evolves in the Intellectual or Mind-Soul will be an essentially human attribute when it develops the Christ quality.”
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. We now move from the centre of the chapel to the south aisle, where we find the carving of Moses, with the priestly rod of Aaron and the tablet of the Law. This is the place of the Sephira Tiphereth, traditionally translated as ‘beauty’, but which Steiner characterises as ‘strength that has come to rest in itself.’ The figure of Moses represents that quality perfectly.
Opposite the carving of Moses, which sits in the bottom right hand corner of a window, is a carving of an angel figure holding a heart. This Beatitude is connected with the ‘I’, the essential self. Steiner explains that through the Christ quality imparted to the blood and heart, the ‘I’ that embraces the Spiritual Soul, or Consciousness Soul, will find God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God. We stand now in the place of the Sephira Netzach, or overcoming. The carving here shows a mother and child resolutely turning away from a demonic Being, and towards a long stemmed cross held in the arms of an angelic Being. Once again, Steiner suggests that the meaning of this Beatitude is better expressed – at least, for those familiar with his terminology – by the phrase: Blessed are they who draw unto themselves the Spirit Self. The carving is eloquent in its expression of an overcoming and rejection of temptation and of embracing the good, the beautiful and the true. We can understand the mother as standing for the human soul in its entirety, and the child as the human spirit coming to full consciousness as Spirit Self.
The last two Beatitudes Steiner tells us in this lecture are addressed to Christ’s closest disciples, and belong to the future. We stand now in the centre of the western end of the chapel, in the place of the Sephira Hod, often rendered as sympathy, or as the spirit revealing itself outwardly. This is where we stand on first entering the chapel at the west door, and where we see the chapel’s interior in all its grandeur for the first time. The chapel’s architects and designers did their best to make real the experience of the outward revelation of the spirit.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. There is a carving above and to the left of the west door that shows a head with a wound in the temple. This is said by some to be the apprentice, who was murdered by a jealous master craftsman who saw the pillar that the apprentice had made (the so-called Apprentice Pillar) and slew the boy in his wrath. However, it is clear that the head once had a beard that was knocked off the original carving during the iconoclastic time of the Reformation. Apprentices were not allowed to cultivate beards. Others identify this head as belonging to Hiram Abiff, the architect of Solomon’s Temple, who was himself slain by three selfishly ambitious journeymen to whom Hiram refused to give the Master Word that would elevate them in their respective crafts. Here we have an example of one who was persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Above and to the right of this carving, in the vaulted ceiling, we see the Dove of the Holy Spirit. This Beatitude is connected by Steiner to the Life Spirit.
The last Beatitude is directed at those most intimately connected to Christ. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in Heaven, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
We are now in the place of Yesod, or foundation. The carving here, however, shows no suffering or persecution. Rather it shows a couple united in piety, with looks of rejoicing on their faces. This final Beatitude is linked by Steiner to the Spirit Human.
At last we step outside the chapel, to the world beyond, the world where we work and live. This is the realm of the Sephira Malkuth, meaning ‘field of activity’ or ‘kingdom’.
Of course, there is a great deal more to be said on these topics than can be covered adequately here, and naturally, it takes more than a single visit to Rosslyn Chapel to weigh up what I suggest here, that the qualities of the Sephirotic Tree of Kabalah, and the qualities of the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount are represented in the carvings of the chapel. However, I have come to believe that these are indeed part of the overall meaning of the chapel, and indicators once again of the theme of transformation. The chapel, in its picturesque, but subtle way, shows us a picture of ourselves, and what we can become.