Step into the great Gothic cathedral of Chartres and you literally step on to a mystery. Set into the paving stones of the nave floor is an extraordinary black and white design contained within a circle. Unfortunately, it is often covered with chairs so you can only see parts of it and not get an impression of the whole but you will see diagrams of it everywhere.
This is the only undisturbed medieval labyrinth left in a cathedral nave in the world – although there is also an authentic labyrinth in the chapter house of Bayeux cathedral. There were other labyrinths in other churches but they were torn up in the 18th and 19th centuries. That of Reims, for example, now only exists as the logo on the “monument historique” (ancient monument) signs to be seen around France.
Medieval labyrinths, however, have been recreated in Amiens, St-Omer and St Quentin (all in northeast France), Guingamp in Brittany and Selestat in Alsace.
The exact form of these labyrinths varies but the principle is always the same. The word labyrinth is misleading. It is not to be understood in its modern sense as a synonym of a maze (a three dimensional puzzle with choices to make, a single right route from start to finish and dead ends to confound you) or a complicated cluster of streets or paths with no sense to their organisation.
You cannot get lost in an authentic labyrinth because it is flat and unicursal with only one path leading from the circumference to the centre. There are no junctions; no choices to make; and no walls or hedges to stop you cheating.
Clearly, a labyrinth was not placed in a great church such as Chartres for frivolous reasons, so what is it doing there? The short answer is we don’t know. Mystery surrounds the origin and purpose of medieval labyrinths. Much research and even more speculation has gone into deciphering these strange patterns and few definite conclusions can be drawn.
The labyrinth is not a Christian symbol per se. It has been found carved into rocks by prehistoric people thousands of years ago. For it to have been incorporated into a church it must have had a Christian purpose. We know that many pagan traditions were subsumed into Christianity in its early days and this may be an example of that process of assimilation.
One colourful hypothesis is that the labyrinth derives from superstition and serves as a trap for evil spirits. The labyrinths of Chartres and St-Quentin are placed near to the west door. Demons (and death) were thought to come into a church from the west and as they could only move in straight lines they would get caught in the devious twists of the labyrinth.
Another suggestion is that a labyrinth marks a “well” of earth energy, but this is taking speculation to an extreme.
The most popular theory about the labyrinths is that they provided a route of symbolic pilgrimage. The faithful would follow the path from the outside to the inside. This may explain why almost all labyrinths are in northern France (there is only one in the south, in Mirepoix in the Ariège), far from the pilgrimage routes towards Rome and Santiago de Compostela. The labyrinth may have served as a symbolic substitute…
By Nick Inman, author of Guide to Mystical France, a book which takes you beyond the coverage of conventional guidebooks, history, architecture, in search of the deeper truths. Delve deep under the psychic skin of France and discover the tales of the Templars, Cathars, mystics, Gurdjieff, King Arthur, Nostradamus and alchemists…