About labyrinths

Labyrinths and mazes

Mazes and a range of labyrinth designs are found all around the world in many cultures and civilizations. They are found carved in rock, ceramics, clay tablets, mosaics, manuscripts, stone patterns, turf, hedges, and cathedral pavements. The earliest known designs are about 3000 years old. The significance of them for the various cultures they were part of and the story of how they developed from one place to another (or simultaneously appeared in several) is often mysterious and hard to fathom. The most ancient and widespread design looks complicated but can be drawn quite easily if you know the method.

The labyrinth has since ancient times been associated with the legend of the Minotaur, the monster half-man half-bull which dwelt in the heart of a labyrinth on the island of Crete. Theseus was able to get to the centre of the labyrinth, slay the Minotaur and find his way out again by following the thread he had trailed behind him on the way in. But the story has caused confusion ever since, because clearly the Minotaur's lair was a maze that you could get lost in, whereas a labyrinth, however confusing it looks, has only one twisting path that weaves its way to the centre and back out again. There is only one entrance and exit, no dead ends, and no crossing of paths with a choice of which way to turn.

Cathedral Labyrinths

The Romans adapted the ancient labyrinth symbol as a decorative floor pattern, and the Christian artists and thinkers of early medieval times developed the Roman pattern into a new and beautiful form which was used as a feature in many medieval cathedrals. It was marked out on the floor in coloured stone or tiles and usually between 10 and 40 feet in diameter. A range of designs were explored, but the pattern used at Chartres Cathedral in northern France is the archetype and perfection of all medieval labyrinths. Fortunately it has been well-preserved, and in recent times pilgrims have taken to travelling to Chartres specifically to walk it.

Whilst we cannot be exactly sure what the labyrinths were used for, they were clearly a symbol of the Christian way, representing the path of the soul through life. Medieval pilgrims re-enacted this, following the path of the labyrinth in the cathedral on their knees as a means of prayer, or to symbolize the journey to Jerusalem, or as a ritual to mark the end of a pilgrimage. People walked it on the eve of their baptism or confirmation, as an aid to contemplative prayer in Holy Week, and as an illustration both of the life of the Christian and of the life of Christ. But after medieval times the spiritual uses of labyrinths were forgotten, and they fell into disuse. Many were destroyed between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Contemporary Labyrinths

In recent years labyrinths have been rediscovered as a Christian spiritual tool, most notably through the work of Dr. Lauren Artress at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, which has had worldwide influence. The labyrinths of the current revival have mostly been based on the Chartres pattern, although often adapted to suit circumstances. Many of the new wave of 'alternative worship' groups and 'emerging churches' have incorporated labyrinths into the forms of worship that they are pioneering.

Labyrinths also have continuing resonance in non-Christian spiritual contexts, and beyond. A notable recent example is artist Mark Wallinger's creation of a labyrinth plaque for each of London's tube stations, 270 unique designs.