Labyrinth Design and Symbolism

Medieval Understanding of Design

The medieval pattern carried the culmination of the medieval scientific understanding the world. Pythagorian beliefs that mathematical relationships constitute the true nature of the physical, the application of those mathematical relationships to the sun, moon and stars known as the harmony of the spheres, and its further application in constructing sacred geometry applied to the architecture and relationships of proportion within labyrinths and cathedrals. Labyrinth design served as the integration of the current science and religious meaning.

Due to this emphasis on the Pythagorean theory of mathematical relationships, numerology played a prevalent role in labyrinth symbology. An example in an 11th century copy of Boethius’ De Consolation Philosophiae produced in Abingdon, England is a six path labyrinth filled with a poem “Assumpta Est Maria ad Caelestria, Alleluia!” (Mary is assumed into heaven, alleluia!) One line of the exterior notes prays for the acceptance of “Siweard into the hall of the sevenfold heaven.” Thus, the seven concentric circles of the labyrinth are meant to represent the sevenfold heaven of the prayer. Saward notes (88) “Medieval scholars were forever debating the structure of the heavens and reviewing and renewing their terminology, but most agreed that the earth, surrounded by the orbits of the sun and the planets, was encircled by the fixed stars in the firmament. Beyond this lay additional spheres representing the spiritual heavens, further subdivided, where the saints and angels resided.”

In the Book of Gospels, by Otfrid of Weissenburg c.871AD, the addition of four more circuits to the classical pattern further aligns the labyrinth with Christian numerology, bringing the total circuits to 11. However, the perfection of the symbolism for the labyrinth arose with the visual and mathematical symmetry demonstrated in the 10th century in a manuscript from St. Germain-des-Pres, Paris. The 11 circuit labyrinth model has been redrawn to include not only the superimposed cross, but also a path symmetry. Of 35 movements from edge to center, the first 17 mirror the last 17, with the 18th movement providing the axis of symmetry. The 70 movements of the path to the center and return parallels the life expectation of 3 score years and 10 (Saward, 88).

Symbolic Numberology

Symbolic numerology gave meaning to each of the labyrinth’s aspects. The circles not only were related to the celestrial or heavenly spheres, but also were representative of perfection in form and representing the divine. The division of a concentric circles represented divine order or the greek idea of the logos, the separation and ordering of matter, a concept that Pythagorean ideas built upon.

The number of circuits, eleven, represented sin, transgression, excessiveness and incompleteness. Eleven is one more than the ten commandments, and one less than the twelve disciples- thus representing Judas, who betrayed Jesus. The eleven circuits came to symbolize the world of sin, with God/Christ at the center. (Kerr, 105) The center, or 12th circuit, is the multiple of 3, which signifies heaven and the trinity, and four, which signifies earth. (Altress, 58) As could be seen within the labyrinths in Algeria mentioned previously, the holy church, or the City of God, or divine rule, alternately symbolized the center – also suggesting the unity of heaven and earth.

Interestingly, the concept of the world of sin is also emphasized by the orientation of the labyrinth pattern within both manuscripts and the churches. (Kerr, 106) The labyrinths faced west, the direction of the setting sun, a symbol of death and sin. Facing east to enter the labyrinth evoked the metaphor of the facing the rising Sun, symbolizing the risen and triumphant Christ and progressing towards the center Christ, or God, and of leaving sin and death behind. The manuscript labyrinth evoked this metaphor following the medieval cartographic tradition of west being at the bottom and east, the top of the page. Within the cathedrals, whose entrances faced west following the same symbolism, the labyrinths were placed facing the entrances and between the entrance and the altar. Thus, penitents entering the church and leaving behind the world, were faced with the symbolic journey to God and rebirth, before nearing the sacred and holy space of the altar area beyond. A similar usage is even more readily seen in a stone relief labyrinth at Lucca which remains intact next to the entrance. The fingertips of centuries have worn the stone smooth as the pattern helped prepare the devout to enter within. Kerr notes (144) “the act of tracing the labyrinth path was thought to purify the Christian soul, to prepare it for meeting its Maker. The function of the labyrinth to redirect one’s life toward God by compelling one to expect a hitherto worldly way of life for a spiritual one recalls the symbol’s initiatory role in pagan antiquity (the Game of Troy) and in later accounts of it serving as a path of repentance. The labyrinth of sin and the path of purification both pose the question of redemption answered by the cruciform shape of the labyrinth.”

Further, “the cross pattern superimposed, formed barriers that repeatedly force one to change direction and metaphorically compel one through the “Stations of the Cross.” ” The confrontation of the cross as we journey within the world of sin is a compelling metaphor, as is the symbolism of salvation leaving its mark on the world of sin and reordering its pattern. Thus the ruler of the world is no longer Satan, but Christ.”

The rose of the Chartres design with its six petals is thought to signify the six days of creation. The Rose also symbolized Mary, who was commonly reference also as the rose of Charon. (Artress, 58) Her elevated place within the hierarchy of the heavens gave symbolic reference to the feminine aspects of the Creator God and emphasized the birth and nurturing symbology of the labyrinth. Labyrinths that were octagonal rather than circular in overall shape were mainly found near bapistries and baptismal fonts – eight being associated with resurrection, rebirth and also then with initiation. (Kerr, 144)

The Chartres design also features 28 lunations in each quarter, the foil and cusp pattern that marks the outer edge. The relationship between the rose and the lunations is geometric and based on a 13 pointed star radiating from the labyrinths center point. The number 13 signified Christ, being 12 plus 1 (Artress, 64) and an irreducible prime number, which for the Greeks pointed to the divine. Many scholars debate the purpose of the lunations, but given their careful mathematical inclusion in the Chartres labyrinth geometry and the complex relationship of the center rose to the outer lunations, it seems logical that these had symbolic meaning as well, not just decorative. Scholars have proposed reference to the calendar functions of the lunar year. Because of the paucity of resources regarding this, and the repetitive significance of the 28 reversals within the labyrinth and 28 lunations of each quarter, some further research seems warranted, especially given the manuscript evidence of labyrinths associated with calendar calculations.

Chartres Calendar

During the 12th century, when the Chartres labyrinth was constructed, the passage of days was based on the solar Julian Calendar. However, because Easter was related to the Jewish Passover feast, based on a lunisolar (moon and sun) calendar, it was necessary to calculate conversions to establish the correct timing. In a tradition standardized by the first Council of Nicaea in 325, Easter was celebrated the first Sunday following a full moon after March 21st.

By the 12th century, Easter was calculated based on a formula and tables published by Dionysius Exiguus in 525-26 AD and later known as Liber de Paschate (Book of Easter). Dionysius based his information on a set of tables published early in Alexandria and built on the Metonic cycle of 19 years plus one day. His calculations for Easter were not accepted widely until the 11th century and remained in use from then until the Gregorian calendar came into use in the 16th century. As Dionysius’ tables did not extend past mid-7th century, calculations following his method were necessary to determine the annual date of Easter. The lunar year was divided into 12 synodic (cycle of the moon in relation to Earth) months of 30 days each, a total of 354 per year. The additional 11 day disparity (epacts) between the lunar and solar calendar was accounted for by an extra lunar month (intercalary month) each time the total epacts equaled 30. The remaining epacts rolled over into the next count. Every 19 years the lunar cycle would approximate the solar and be off by a single day, leading to a 19 year cycle with a correction of one day.

The symbology of the labyrinth was not limited in the medieval mind however, to a calculation of the Easter date, it also was linked to the harmony of the spheres and celestrial bodies surrounding the Earth. The Anomalistic lunar month is the phases of the moon as viewed against the fixed points of stars, and is 28 days long. The year is 13 months with less day remaining versus the solar calendar. The 28 reversals contained within the labyrinth path certainly seem to evoke the moon cycle of waxing and waning against the concentric spheres of the body of the labyrinth.

The 112 lunations of Chartres labyrinth do not appear to fit this calendar calculation. However, in trying to find reference to lunar cycles that dealt with this, I did find out that approximately 111 lunations (almost 9 years) is the time required for the lunar orbital perigee (the point where the moon is closest to earth) to advance 360° with respect to the Earth orbital perihelion (the point where the Earth is closest to the sun). (Dr. Irv Bromberg, University of Toronto, Canada It’s an interesting question and certainly a fun piece of trivia about the Chartres labyrinth.

Artress, Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice. New York, Riverhead Books, 2006.
One of the best labyrinth books on spirituality. Widely considered a classic.
Camp, Carole Ann and Schaper, Donna. Labyrinths from the Outside In Walking to Spiritual Insight A Beginner’s Guide. Woodstock: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2000.
A lot of great ideas on contexts for labyrinth experiences.
Candolini, Gernot. Labyrinthe Ein Praxisbuch zum Malen, Bauen, Tanzen, Spielen, Meditieren und Feiern. Augsburg: Pattloch, 1999.
This is a labyrinth pattern book with traditional styles and contemporary. It is in German, so I didn’t understand a word of his notes – well, except for “1539.”
Conty, Patrick. The Genesis and Geometry of the Labyrinth Architecture, Hidden Language, Myths, and Rituals. Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2002.
Convoluted and complex, he had some very interesting ideas on the relationships between labyrinths, knots and knotwork, but it was very hard to wade through.
Doob, Penelope Reed. The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
She traces the idea of labyrinths in literature and compiles some rather interesting observations about their meaning.
Geoffrion, Jill Kimberly Hartwell. Praying the Labyrinth A Journal for Spiritual Exploration. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1999.
Written from her notes after visiting Chartres Cathedral, this journal style book has some real jems of insight and searching questions. Well worth the time.
Hohmuth, Jurgen. Labyrinths & Mazes. New York: Prestel, 2003.
Incredible photographs of a huge number of labyrinths in full color. A variety of guests wrote pieces accompanying the pictures. The navigation notes about the Scandanavian Troytowns was the most unique piece.
Kern, Hermann. Through the Labyrinth Designs and Meanings over 5,000 Years. Munich: Prestel, 2000.
Incredibly comprehensive catalogue of labyrinth designs worldwide. Very well organized and easy to reference.
Rosetta, Lani, B.A., B.S.. Labyrinths for Kids Exploring the Construction and Use of Labyrinths as a Tool for Increasing Fine Motor, Visual Perceptual and Gross Motor Skills in the Classroom. Leihuna Enterprises, 2001.
This is full of ideas for modifying labyrinths for a variety of audiences and materials, as well as useful ways to use labyrinths as games and learning tools.
Sands, Helen Raphael. The Healing Labyrinth Finding Your Path to Inner Peace. New York: Barron’s, 2001.
Excellent instructions on how to transfer labyrinths onto your own materials. Includes instructions and music for the crane dance and other ways to use labyrinths.
Saward, Jeff. Labyrinths & Mazes A Complete Guide to Magical Pathways of the World. New York: Lark Books, 2003
This is a very comprehensive, well organized survey of labyrinth development and usage throughout history. It was one of the best books I encountered.
West, Melissa Gayle. Exploring the Labyrinth A Guide for Healing and Spiritual Growth. New York: Broadway Books, 2000.
Has some great ideas for setting up labyrinth experiences.