Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

 

 

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The Medieval Labyrinth

(also known as Chartres, cathedral or eleven-path/circuit)

 

First developed during the ninth and tenth centuries CE, the medieval labyrinth has obvious four-fold symmetry (also often seen in the Roman labyrinths) to produce a design far better suited for use in a Christian context. While commonly created with 11 concentric circuits surrounding the central goal, a number of early examples can be found with anywhere between 6 and 15 circuits.

An ornate form of the medieval labyrinth,
inlaid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral, France, c. 1220 CE

Various shape varieties

Labyrinth Typology

Pavement labyrinth,
Chartres Cathedral, France

Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

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By the eleventh and twelfth centuries this form became common in manuscripts and in the decoration of church walls and floors in Italy. By the early thirteenth century it had spread to France, and soon became the principle form throughout southern and western Europe. The famous use of this labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral has led many writers to term this design the "Chartres" labyrinth. For exact replicas of the labyrinth at Chartres, this term is acceptable, although inappropriate otherwise, as this design was in widespread circulation long before it was employed at Chartres. Likewise, “cathedral” and “eleven path/circuit” are names that do not accurately reflect the variety of designs and locations in which this design is encountered. Although others have used the term "Medieval Christian," "Medieval" accurately portrays the context of this labyrinth, and does not exclude those examples that appear in secular or non-Christian contexts.

Left and right-handed versions

Six-circuit medieval variety, in a manuscript created c.1030-1048 CE, Abingdon, England