Pewter charm replica of the labyrinth in Chartres cathedral pendant on a steel ball chain. Perfect for pilgrims, travelers, and those discerning God’s path for their life. To learn more about the history and meaning of the labyrinth in Christendom, keep reading…
Labyrinths are common in many cultures throughout history, but the most famous labyrinth of Christendom is that of Chartres Cathedral in France.
A labyrinth is different from a maze, though both look similar. A maze has many wrong turns and only one correct path and one easily loses their way. A labyrinth only has one path that twists and turns but ultimately leads one to the center without confusion.
At the time that the cathedral in Chartres was built from 1194-1250 AD, the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur would have been well known. In this story from Greek mythology, the king of Crete built a huge labyrinth and hid within it the minotaur, a monster that devoured human beings. No one could escape the labyrinth alive.
It was within this cultural context that the Chartres labyrinth was built. Approximately 42 feet in diameter, 860 feet long with a path width of about 13 inches, the round labyrinth is inset into the floor. The shape, size, and location mirrors that of the large Rose Window which features Christ in Majesty at the center.
One possible interpretation of the Chartres labyrinth is that it is a metaphor for the Christian life, with twists and turns and which no one escapes alive – though in a very different sense from the labyrinth of Crete. In the Christian vision, the end of our life culminates not in being devoured by a monster but with an encounter with Christ enthroned in Majesty.
Historically, we have very few written records that reveal how the labyrinth was used in the Middle Ages. We do know, however, that in the 14th century, monks would play a “game of labyrinth” on Easter Sunday:
“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-dance while chanting Victimae paschali laudes (Praises to the Easter Victim). While this was taking place, the Dean would stand (presumably at the centre of the labyrinth) and throw a large leather ball (the pilota) back and forth to the clergy as they danced around the labyrinth (circa Daedalum). Following the singing and dancing, the participants, various officers of the cathedral and local dignitaries would gather in the chapter house for a substantial meal and appropriate Easter sermons, before proceeding to Vespers (Reed Doob, 1990; Wright, 2001). Read more: http://www.labyrinthos.net/chartresfaq.html
Beginning in the 16th centuries, the faithful would walk the labyrinth, sometimes on their knees, while reciting prayers. This practice became seen as representative of a pilgrimage when one was unable to make an actual pilgrimage to the Holy Land.