Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England
Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos
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The Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth -
As one of the best-
Jeff Saward provides some answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about this labyrinth...
When was the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral constructed?
Nobody actually knows when the labyrinth was constructed, because no surviving documents record that information, although various writers have published dates of 1200, 1220 and 1235, even as late as 1240, all given as if they were provable installation dates. The architectural detective work of John James (James, 1990) suggests that the labyrinth must have been laid early in the first decade of the 13th century (c.1201-
Was there an earlier labyrinth in the Cathedral?
Speculation that the current labyrinth replaced an earlier labyrinth in the nave is totally unfounded. While labyrinths with ‘mediaeval’ designs laid as floor decoration first appeared in churches and cathedrals in Italy during the early 12th century, it would appear that the idea did not spread to Northern France until the last decade of that century at the earliest. The labyrinth formerly at Sens may date to the 1190’s, but the example at Chartres was certainly among the early examples, and was clearly influential in the subsequent popularity of labyrinths in 13th century France and elsewhere in central and northern Europe.
It is no wonder that Chartres Cathedral has drawn so much attention over the course of its long history. As a repository of holy relics, the cathedral has attracted pilgrims for over 1000 years, and in much the same way has attracted popular folklore as well as misinformation. For instance, the story that the cathedral is situated on the site of a former Druidic temple, erected in honour of the “Virgo Paritura” (The Virgin who will conceive) is not based on any historical or archaeological evidence. As Mgr. Michon has shown (Michon, 1984), this story was created in the 16th century and popularised in the early 17th century by Sebastian Rouillard. Recent archaeological excavation has shown that the cathedral overlies the alignment and foundations of earlier Roman buildings. However, the topic of this study will be one particular part of this remarkable building – the pavement labyrinth situated in the nave of the cathedral. Not surprisingly, the published information about this labyrinth is riddled with confusion, supposition and fantasy – probably more so than any other labyrinth.
When can you walk the labyrinth at Chartres?
Chartres Cathedral is a working building and a place of worship. Normally, the nave of the cathedral is lined with chairs and most of the labyrinth is subsequently obscured. It has long been the tradition at the cathedral to remove the chairs and uncover the labyrinth, to allow it to be walked, on midsummer day, June 21st. In recent years the cathedral authorities have also instigated a program of regularly uncovering the labyrinth every Friday during the summer months -
Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos
What was at the centre of the Labyrinth?
All that remains of the brass or copper plaque that formerly decorated the centre of the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral are the worn stubs of the rivets that held it in place. While we know, from a description of the plaque from around 1640 (Chaliline, 1918), that it bore a representation of the combat between Theseus and the Minotaur, we have no plan or diagram of the layout of its design. It would surely have been similar to the depictions of this scene found in contemporary labyrinth-
Was there an inscription on the pathway?
Another misunderstanding, that has appeared on a number of occasions, concerns the claim that the words of the 51st psalm, Miserere mei, Deus, were once engraved on the stones forming the path of the labyrinth at Chartres. This old chestnut continues to appear from time to time, despite the fact that Jean Villette dispelled this notion as nothing more than a misinterpretation of an old engraving of the words of the psalm superimposed over a plan of the labyrinth, drawn in the mid-
Plan of the Chartres labyrinth with psalms superimposed on the pathway,
from the Recherches sur Chartres manuscript of Charles Chaliline,
first published in 1918, but originally written c.1640
What size and shape is the labyrinth?
Much has been written about the exact size and measurements of the Chartres labyrinth. Hermann Kern (Kern, 1982), for example, stated categorically that the labyrinth is elliptical rather than circular, 12.60 x 12.30 metres (41 feet 4 inches by 40 feet 4 inches). He based his statement on comments from Maurice Guinguand, who had presumably taken his measurements from the often-
The exact size of the labyrinth has been the subject of some disagreement. W.H. Matthews said about 40 feet, Nigel Pennick and Lauren Artress say approximately 42 feet and Emanuel Wallet gives 13 metres, nearer 43 feet. Actually the labyrinth is 12.887 x 12.903 metres (42 feet 3⅜ inches by 42 feet 4 inches) -
How long is the pathway?
Similarly the path length from entrance to centre is claimed to be anywhere between 450 feet (Matthews, 59) and 965 feet (294 m, according to Kern). This is clearly a considerable range, which should suggest caution in believing any of these figures, however reliable the source may seem. Several books give the path length as 666 feet, a number that is surely too good to be true, often quoting Jean Shinoda Bolen's Crossing to Avalon, published in 1994. But Bolen gives her source as Barbara Walker's The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects (1988), which in turn quotes Elizabeth Pepper and John Wilcock's Magical & Mystical Sites from 1976. Turning to this source, we discover that this information comes from an unnamed “old book about Pagan Rome,” clearly not a reliable basis for the subsequent faith in this almost magical path length.
The thing to bear in mind is that, almost certainly, none of the authors confidently quoting numbers for this measurement have actually taken a tape to the path and measured it in person. At best these numbers are estimates based on approximate diameters, at worst just wild guesses! John James, who has personally measured much of Chartres Cathedral, gives a path length of 261.5 metres (858 ft), which seems very plausible, although it is not specified exactly where his path measure begins and ends. Based on actual measurements and a mathematical model of the labyrinth, I calculate that the path length from the entrance to the very centre of the labyrinth is somewhere around 262.4 m (860.9 feet), but it is still worth checking if you ever happen to be in Chartres Cathedral with a pedometer -
How wide is the path?
There is also confusion surrounding the width of the paths of the labyrinth. Some claim the paths are 16 inches wide; in fact they average 34 cm (13 ¼ inches) with a 7.5 cm (3 inch) wall separating each path. However, there is variation in the width of individual path stones and the mortar joint between the stones also varies considerably, taking up much of the difference between individual stones.
What was the purpose of the lunations?
Without doubt, the most remarkable feature of the Chartres labyrinth is the halo of ornamentation that surrounds the outer circuit of the labyrinth. Comprising of 112 ‘cusps,’ enclosed within 113 ‘foils,’ the complete circle would contain 114 of each, but for the two cusps and one foil omitted to allow entrance to the labyrinth. Variously described by different authors as cups, cusps, spikes, scallops, teeth or cogs, the majority of recent books on the subject refer to this unique arrangement as the ‘lunations.’ This term is obviously redolent with connotation, suggesting some ancient symbolic meaning, but what is the origin of this terminology?
Keith Critchlow first coined it, almost inadvertently, as recently as the early 1970's (Critchlow, Carroll & Lee, 1973). Talking about the 112 cusps around the halo, he says, “When one does divide 112 by 4 (the major divisions of the paths of the maze) we find it gives us 28. The days of a lunar month?” He later talks in the same sentence about the ‘lunations’ and ‘cusps’ and although he is talking about lunar months, and not naming the pattern as such, the connection was made and this nomenclature has been used ever since, especially since it was popularised by Lauren Artress in her 1995 book Walking a Sacred Path. In that book, Artress says, “Some believe that the labyrinth served as a calendar. It offered a method of keeping track of the lunar cycles of 28 days each. Using this, the church could determine the date of the lunar feast of Easter.” Many folk have picked up on this qualified statement without inquiring how exactly such a lunar calculator might work in practice, and what started as nothing more than simple speculation, soon become accepted fact in many circles.
The biggest problem with this notion is that there are actually 29.5306 days in an average synodic lunar month (the time between consecutive new moons), not 28, and the mediaeval scholars and clerics were well aware of this awkward number, if not its precise and slowly changing value. They created complex lunar calendrical systems with alternating months of 29 and 30 days, employed embolistic years with additional intercalated months and inserted leap days, to keep track of this cycle in order to keep the theoretical lunar cycle in sequence with the solar calendar according to the principles determined by Dionysius Exiguus during the early 6th century CE (Richards, 1998). These tables were constructed to determine in advance the date of the first full moon that would occur on or after the spring equinox in any given year, and thus calculate the date of Easter, the primary festival of the Christian Church. They were assiduously compiled, copied and distributed by Christian scholars, scriptoriums and centres of learning across Europe and can still be found in old Bibles as the tables of Golden Numbers.
In medieval Christian manuscripts and encyclopaedia these tables were sometimes accompanied by drawings of labyrinths, presumably to illustrate the complexity of the subject matter, as much as anything else. Arguably, this juxtaposition may have been influential in the subsequent connection between labyrinths and Easter festivals and dances in the cathedrals of France. Undoubtedly, the complex alternating circuits of the labyrinth were seen as symbolic of the intermeshing cycles of the calendars, as well as the spheres on which the sun, moon and planets moved around the firmament against the background of the fixed stars. Beyond these lay additional spheres representing the spiritual heavens, where saints and angels resided. The use of labyrinths to exemplify these principles is a further demonstration of the flexibility of the symbol to reflect the complex interplay of the scientific and spiritual worlds of mediaeval thought.
However, the supposed 28-
Was there something buried beneath the centre?
This is a piece of folklore, in circulation since the mid-
It is recorded that pious visitors to the labyrinths at Reims, Arras and Sens would recite prayers while shuffling around the pathway on their knees during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but no evidence exists for this practice much prior to this time (Wright, 2001). At Chartres there is no specific mention of this penitential use, but Challine’s diagram of the Chartres labyrinth overlain with a spiritual text winding its way along the pathway (drawn around 1640), suggests that a similar ritual may have played out there. However, it is also recorded around 1650 that visitors to the cathedral would noisily walk and run around the labyrinth, even during services, much to the annoyance of the Canon of Chartres at the time, who refers to it as “...only a crazy amusement at which those who have nothing better to do pass the time running and turning...” An engraving of the nave of the cathedral from 1696 likewise shows fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the day walking the labyrinth, seemingly more as a social gathering, rather than as any form of spiritual practice.
Prior to this point in time there are no surviving documents from Chartres that mention the labyrinth, nor record how it was used or its specific purpose. However, other labyrinths in French cathedrals, better documented, may provide some clues...
Interior of Chartres Cathedral, original engraving 1696,
retouched and published by Bulteau, 1887-
What was the original name of the labyrinth?
The lack of surviving documents contemporary with the construction and original use of the Chartres labyrinth means that we simply don’t know. However, drawing parallels with other, better documented labyrinths in French cathedrals and manuscripts of the time, it would be fair to assume that it was known at the time of its construction as the “Domus Daedali” (House of Daedalus), a popular title equating the intricacy of these labyrinths in the cathedrals -
How were the cathedral labyrinths used by the clergy?
While there are a number of documents recording details of services, practices and rituals at Chartres, dating back to the 14th century at least, none mention the labyrinth specifically. However, the rituals carried out in connection with the pavement labyrinths at Auxerre, and to a lesser extent, nearby Sens, are better known as a consequence of a number of petitions and decrees that either allowed or forbad certain customs observed by the clergy at those cathedrals. In 1413, a petition from the lesser clergy to the canons of Sens, requested that on Easter Sunday, “according to custom...” they be allowed to “...play freely the game on the labyrinth during the ceremony.” The game and the ceremony are not specified, but it can be inferred that this was a liturgical dance that took place around the labyrinth, and probably involved a game of pilota, where a ball was tossed back and forth between the participants (Wright, 2001).
This can be inferred from the detailed description of this practice as recorded at Auxerre, where from at least 1396 until 1538, the canons and chaplains of the cathedral would gather around the labyrinth early in the afternoon every Easter Sunday and perform a ring-
The details of this extraordinary Easter ritual are, ironically, fully detailed in legal documents attempting to outlaw the practice as unsuitable for a Christian place of worship, lodged during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Despite early success in upholding the tradition, it was eventually stopped in 1538. Similarly, the ceremony at Sens continued until 1517, when it was also outlawed, although by that time the dance was no longer held on the labyrinth (Wright, 2001; Brandstatter, 2008).
Unfortunately, none of these documents record when these rituals started, but it would seem fair to assume that if it was a well-
And what would have been the original purpose and use of the labyrinth at Chartres at other times of the year -
Jeff Saward; Thundersley, England, August 2009
Parts of this article have been adapted and updated from “Is That a Fact?” by Jeff Saward & Kimberly Lowelle Saward, originally published in Caerdroia 33, 2003, pp.14-
Does the rose window perfectly overlay the labyrinth?
Without doubt, one of the most frequently quoted ‘facts’ about the labyrinth at Chartres is the notion that the famous rose window, set high in the west frontage of the cathedral, if hinged down along the length of the nave, would exactly overlay the pattern of the window onto the labyrinth. It's a nice image, but unfortunately it isn't true. This is a good example of a statement that has been repeated so frequently, but never checked, that nobody ever questions its authenticity. The idea was, again, first popularised by Keith Critchlow in the 1970’s, but even then he stated only that… “the west rose window conforms basically in size to the labyrinth” and admitted that… “there is room for splitting hairs at the mechanically precise level.” As the Rose Window has a diameter of around 11.9 metres (clear aperture of the glazed area, and nearer 13.6 metres including the moulding around the window), with the labyrinth measuring just under 12.9 metres, these are thick hairs indeed.
However this ignores a vital error in the original concept -
1.. Measurements taken by Jeff Saward and Marty Kermeen, June 2002.
2.. It would appear that this matter was first mentioned by Robert Ferré in his unpublished manuscript A Day at Chartres, (1995), where he credits Canon Legaux and Jean Villette for pointing out that the path is composed of 272 stones.
3.. Measured by Jeff Saward with a Suunto 360 PC clinometer, May 2001, averaged from three readings taken across the labyrinth and weighted towards the reading taken from the centre of the labyrinth to the centre of the rose window. If the centre of the rose window were truly equidistant from the base of the west wall and the labyrinth, it should subtend an angle of 45 degrees -
Artress, Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path – Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.
Bolen, Jean Shinoda. Crossing to Avalon. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994.
Brandstatter, Natasha. “Dancing Through Time: The Evolution of the Labyrinth into a Symbol for Pilgrimage” Caerdroia 37 (2008), pp.18-
Bulteau, Marcel. Monographie de la cathédral de Chartres. Chartres: 1887-
Chaliline, Charles. Recherches sur Chartres. 1918, original manuscript written c.1640.
Critchlow, Keith, Jane Carroll and Llewylyn Vaughan Lee. “Chartres Maze – a model of the universe?” Architectural Association Quarterly 5 (2), 1973.
Ferré, Robert. A Day at Chartres, unpublished manuscript, 1995.
Ferré, Robert. Origin, Symbolism and Design of the Chartres Labyrinth. St. Louis, MO: One Way Press, 2001.
James, John. The Contractors of Chartres. London: Croom Helm, 1981.
James, John. The Master Masons of Chartres. Leura, NSW Australia: West Grinstead Publishing, 1990.
Kern, Hermann. Labyrinthe. Munich: Prestel, 1982. Revised edition published in English as Through the Labyrinth, ed. Robert Ferré & Jeff Saward. Munich & London: Prestel, 2000.
Matthews, W.H. Mazes and Labyrinths – A General Account of their History and Developments. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1922.
Michon, Mgr. Roger. “Les Druides -
Pennick, Nigel. Mazes and Labyrinths. London: Robert Hale, 1990.
Pepper, Elizabeth & John Wilcock. Magical & Mystical Sites. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.
Reed Doob, Penelope. The Idea of the Labyrinth. Ithaca, NY & London: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Richards, E. G. Mapping Time -
Villette, Jean. “L’énigme du labyrinthe de la cathédrale” Notre-
Walker, Barbara. The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects. Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 1988.
Wallet, Emanuel. Description d’une crypte et d’un pavé mosaïque de l’église St-
Wright, Craig. The Maze and the Warrior. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Did pilgrims or priests walk the labyrinth on their knees?
One of the most popular stories concerning the original use of the labyrinths in French cathedrals, and indeed the turf labyrinths in England, is that they were walked, or more frequently traversed on bended knees, by priests and pilgrims. While the labyrinth on the floor of the cathedral at Chartres was undoubtedly walked from the time of its construction -
Central panel of the Chartres labyrinth, showing the rivets that held the former plaque in place
Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos
How many stones in the pathway?
The number of stones that form the path of the labyrinth provides a final numerical puzzle. Often quoted as exactly 270 or 272, and considered by many as symbolic of the number of days of human gestation (2), the exact number is in fact difficult to determine. Several of the original stones have clearly broken since they were originally laid in place and now appear to be two slabs instead of one. Those with ragged, interlocking cracks are easy to spot; others with clean breaks are more difficult. There are also a few short slabs that look suspiciously like ‘patches’ inserted to replace damaged portions of pathway. Depending on how you count, it is possible to arrive at a number anywhere between around 268 and 274. Either way, the use of the word ‘exactly’ in discussion of this, or practically any other other aspect of the Chartres labyrinth, should be treated with caution, as labyrinths tend not to conform to exactitudes.
Stone by stone plan of the Chartres labyrinth, by Jeff Saward
|Introduction - Contents List|
|The Story of the Labyrinth|
|The First Labyrinths|
|The Centre of the Labyrinth|
|Chartres Labyrinth FAQs|
|Laying out a Labyrinth|
|Labyrinths in Ireland|
|Historic Turf Labyrinths - England|
|Historic Church labyrinths - England|
|The Chaldon Labyrinths|
|Labyrinth Typology - Classical|
|Labyrinth Typology - Classical Variants|
|Labyrinth Typology - Roman Labyrinths|
|Labyrinth Typology - Medieval Labyrinths|
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