The Chartres Cathedral’s great labyrinth


About 80 kilometers southwest of Paris stands the city of Chartres, one of whose main cultural attractions is its Gothic cathedral built between 1194 and 1220. It was built in the same place where other churches and cathedrals had been before, the first one around 360 A.D., all of them destroyed by fires: the first one during the Visigothic sack of Hunald in 742, the second one by the Normans of Hastings in 858, the third one in 962 by the troops of Richard I of Normandy, the fourth one in 1020, and the fifth one in 1194.

Chartres Cathedral / photo Ireneed on Wikimedia Commons

But before all this, the place was already sacred for the Celtic tribe of the Carnutes (from which the name of the city derives), who had there an altar dedicated to the Mother Goddess. From there it can be said that Chartres became an important center of veneration for Mary from the 12th century onwards.

One of the most unique details of the cathedral is the labyrinth located on the floor of the main nave, which was built at the same time as the latter (in its final stage, between 1215 and 1221), so it was already foreseen in the original design of the structure. With a diameter of about 12 meters and 85 centimeters, it is the largest Christian labyrinth created in the Middle Ages and almost certainly the most famous. It is formed by black and white tiles that form a path with multiple convolutions that lead to the central point.

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth / photo Loyola University Chicago

In fact its structure of 11 circles would serve as a model for many other labyrinths that were made later. There were also some earlier ones, obviously, especially in northern and central Italy, but almost all of them were made in mosaic and with figurative allusions to the theme of Theseus and the Minotaur.

The novelty in Chartres is that there is no figurative ornamentation or allusions to the theme, although there are those who believe, following Challine Shawls (1596-1678), that in the past there was a metal plate in its center representing the mythological theme. This plate would have been removed and melted down in 1792 to make cannons. Hermann Kern, an expert in the study of European labyrinths, disagrees with this theory on the grounds that there is no physical evidence left on the pavement that there was ever anything in the center of the labyrinth.

Interior of Chartres Cathedral, engraving from 1750 / photo Bildforyou7 on Wikimedia Commons

However, it is true that you can see what appear to be rivet marks, although following a somewhat random pattern. A nineteenth-century theory suggested that something may have been buried underneath, but after an excavation in 1849 nothing was found inside.

It is located under the third and fourth crossings of the central nave. According to a belief popularized by Keith Critchlow in the 1970s, it is the same distance from the west doorway as the center of the rose window in height (31.75 meters), and whose diameter is approximately the same as that of the labyrinth (12 meters). Thus, if the west doorway were to fall on the floor of the nave, the rose window would coincide with the labyrinth. However, later authors indicate that in reality there is a difference of 3 meters between both distances. Although the official information of the cathedral itself maintains this version:

The labyrinth of Chartres is an important geometric point: if the façade is “projected” onto the pavement, the center of the rose window -where Christ appears in majesty- corresponds to the center of the labyrinth. If the center of the labyrinth is connected to the central statues of the portals and the place of the old altar, a square is drawn, which serves as a master plan for the plan of the cathedral.

The case is that the rose window, which shows the theme of the Final Judgment, shows Christ surrounded by an inner ring of 12 circles paired with angels and an outer ring, also of 12 circles with resurrection scenes.

Detail of the center of the labyrinth / photo C.garciadelucas on Wikimedia Commons

The labyrinth, given its dimensions, was designed to be walked through (according to information from the cathedral itself, originally intended for the liturgy of Easter Eves), something that both neighbors and pilgrims used to do until it became fashionable to place pews in churches. That is why on Fridays between 10 am and 5 pm the pews are removed, so that those who wish can make the pilgrimage through the labyrinth. The total distance that is covered if you go all the way to the center is, more or less, 262.4 meters.


Sources

Cathédrale de Chartres (web oficial) / Loyola University Chicago / The Labyrinth of Chartres – Technical Data / The Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth FAQ’s (Jeff Saward) / Wikipedia.