The Rosslyn Motet

CNN reports that a musical score has been decoded from carvings in the arches of Rosslyn Chapel. The chapel apparently shows up in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, though I wouldn’t know anything about that, having only been able to read to page 145 before I just couldn’t take any more. Don’t get me started.

But Rosslyn Chapel is awesome. And it doesn’t surprise me that it holds encoded mysteries: the Renaissance was a great age of numerology, arithmology, allegory, and all types of esoteric symbolism.

One quotation seems to criticize the music, and deserves some elucidation:

Simon Beattie of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust said he was delighted to have the mystery finally solved, and was intrigued by the music itself.

“It’s not something you would want to put on in the car and listen to, but it’s certainly an interesting piece of music,” he said. “It’s got a good mediaeval sound to it.”

What they don’t mention here is that in the Middle Ages, in order for music to be considered “beautiful,” it did not need to actually sound good to the ear. Now, they probably don’t mention this because it takes many books to fully describe the aesthetics of the Middle Ages, but in a nutshell, mathematics was considered one basis for beauty. The Rosslyn music is based on Pythagorean intervals and proportions—ideas which were transmitted from the ancient Greeks through Galen, Vitruvius, Augustine, and Boethius. Boethius saw music as essentially mathematical, and this was a very typical medieval approach (so says Umberto Eco in Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, page 30).

In the case of the Rosslyn “composer,” all that mattered seems to have been that the numbers were “true”—they had to jive with “numerical beauty.” Strange notion to us today, but that’s how it was.

Over at the website of the tune’s discoverer, we get a good dose of Dan Brown-ness:

Why would anyone want to hide music? Could it be threatening or dangerous to someone or something? Unless it was very special piece that contained magical, harmonic and resonant properties that resonated in sympathy with spiritual beliefs. Was this music ‘outlawed’ by the Catholic church for some reason?

Yeah, it was probably the music-hating Catholic church that forced this piece to be carved in stone rather than written down on paper.

Come on. Just stop, please.

But do visit the site and watch the video—fascinating!

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One Response to “The Rosslyn Motet”

  1. bernastar Says:

    Yes, not the priests, the doctors, I read that the music was so healing, they hated it! I repeat, you decide. The frequencies of the keys were changed a little throughout time, I searched it, true.

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