Angeli musicanti at Rosslyn chapel

Over the last few months at the Edinburgh University, I spent a lot of time studying manuscripts and and old printed books, but I didn’t expect to find some beautiful examples of late middle ages iconography visiting the Rosslyn chapel, not so far from the city centre.

The whole building is carved in stone, with charming sculptures and bass reliefs representing the life of Jesus Christ, the seven deadly sins and other interestingly interpreted subjects. Furthermore, there are angels playing musical instruments on the side of some windows and on the top of some columns.

No photo are allowed inside the chapel, but there is an brief article written by Lindesay G. Langwill on the Galpin Society Journal which shows 9 pictures of those angels.

However, on the exterior side of the building, there are other three sculptures with other “angeli musicanti” on the side of some windows. The exposure to weathering and Scottish dampness have considerably damaged these items and it is not possible to determine with certainty the musical instruments carved.


Fig.1 – Angel playing a shawm.

In the first picture, although the stick figure, it is possible to recognize an angel is playing a shawm. This double reed instrument was used for playing in ensemble and made in different sizes; there where 30 of them in the collection of King Henry VIII of England. During the Baroque period they have gradually been replaced by the oboe because it was not possible to change the intensity of the sound. Indeed the double reed uses the mouth cavity of the musician as inner tube, always maintaining the same pressure (this playing technique can be noticed in arab zurna players). A particular feature of the shawm was the pirouette, a small turned piece of wood placed on the inner part of the instrument, used to keep the double reed in the mouth of the player.


Fig.2 – Shawms, ‘Sintagma Musicum’, Michael Praetorius, table XI


Fig.3 – Angel playing a cornet.

The second angel (fig.3) is playing a cornet or zink, a curved shape wind instrument made in two carved halves of wood glued together. As for the shawms, we had evidence of the presence of cornets in the collection of King Henry VIII of England, 5 to be exact. They were generally realized in an octagonal shaped profile and covered with leather to keep together the two parts. The sound is produced by the vibration of the player’s lips on the mouthpiece, usually made with turned wood or ivory. The cornet was famous to be very challenging to play; the finger-holes along the tube make difficult to get pure tone notes in comparison with the modern valved instruments.


Fig.4 – Cornets, ‘Sintagma Musicum’, Michael Paretorius, table VIII.


Fig.5 – Angel playing a lute with a plectrum or a mandore

The last sculpture shown a pear shaped instrument, probably played with a plectrum judging from the position of the hand. Unfortunately, the neck came off and we can only speculate on it looking at other sources from the same time. The famous paintings from the late fifteenth century ‘Altar for Najera’ by Hans Memling at the Antwerp Museum or in the ‘Angeli musicanti’ by Melozzo da Forlì at the Pinacoteca Vaticana depict angels playing a small lute with a plectrum. The lute was introduced in Europe after the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula together with many other instruments shown in the renowed Cantigas de Santa Maria. His name seems to relate to the arab term al-ʿūd of which it has maintained some characteristics, but being adapted to play eastern music. Gut frets had been added, but until the late Middle Ages it was played with a plectrum in a mainly monodic way.

The instrument in the sculpture could be also a mandore which Langwill quotes in his article on the angels plying inside the chapel. The mandore pegbox usually creates an obtuse angle with the neck and there are different tuning from that of the lute. Informations about this instrument belong to a later period, but we could find this instrument in the book ‘Musica instrumentalis deudsch’ (1528) by Martin Agricola, called as quintern.


Fig.6 – Lute e quintern, ‘Musica instrumentalis deudsch’ , Martin Agricola. We can notice the difference between the pegbox.

* NB: Nowadays by the term mandola we usually refer to an instrument tuned a fifth or an octave below the mandolin. This kind of mandola was developed during the XVIII-XIX centuries.

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