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The Labyrinth of the Cathedral of Chartres

by rebecca valette

The labyrinth in the cathedral of Chartres, France.

Around the year 1200, as the Cathedral of Chartres was being built, a large labyrinth about forty feet across was set with dark blue and white stones into the floor of the nave of the church. Similar labyrinths were placed in other French Gothic cathedrals, such as Amiens, Saint-Quentin, Rheims, Sens, Arras and Auxerre. Around the 18th century, all of these labyrinths, except the ones at Chartres and Saint-Quentin, were suppressed. The labyrinth at Amiens was later restored in 1894.

These cathedral labyrinths were laid out according to the same basic pattern: 11 concentric circles that contain a single meandering path which slowly leads one to the center rosette. The path makes 28 loops, seven on the left side toward the center, then seven on the right side toward the center, followed by seven on the left side toward the outside, and finally seven on the right side toward the outside, terminating in a short straight path to the rosette.

The Middle Ages was a time of pilgrimages. Since most people could not make the grand pilgrimage to Jerusalem, considered by Christians to be the center of the world, and symbolizing the Kingdom of Heaven, they would make pilgrimages to important cathedrals such as Canterbury, Santiago de Compostella and, of course, Chartres. Once at Chartres, they would end their pilgrimage by walking the labyrinth to the center, and then slowly retracing their steps to regain the "outside world."

Historically, the labyrinth of Chartres has been referred to by four different names:

  • le dédale (or maze, named after Daedalus, the legendary architect who built a labyrinth for King Minos of Crete).
    Just as Theseus struggled against the Minotaur, so man struggles against evil, and is guided back out through the maze by Ariadne or divine grace. The labyrinth of Chartres, however, is not a complex maze but a single path with no hidden corners or dead-ends.
  • la lieue (or league: which is a distance of about three miles).
    Although the length of the path is only 260 meters, in the Middle Ages some pilgrims would walk the labyrinth on their knees. This exercise would take about an hour, or the time needed to walk three miles.
  • le chemin de Jérusalem (or road to Jerusalem).
    By walking the labyrinth, the faithful could make a substitute pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and be united in spirit with the Crusaders.
  • le chemin du paradis (or road to paradise, the heavenly Jerusalem).
    By walking the labyrinth, the faithful trace the path of our long and laborious life on earth, beginning with birth, at the entrance, and ending with death, at the center. The way out symbolizes purgatory and resurrection.

Across these interpretations of the labyrinth of Chartres, we see how medieval theologians and artisans adopted pagan myths and symbols to express Christian concepts.