Loyola University Chicago

Medieval Studies

Labyrinths and Imaginary Pilgrimages

During the Middle Ages, undertaking a pilgrimage to one, if not more, of the holy sites throughout Christendom was a goal that every person, regardless of social standing, sought to fulfill.  Amazingly, many achieved this dream.  In fact, there are surviving accounts of women from England, for example, who made multiple trips to Rome, Santiago de Compostela, and even Jerusalem during their lifetimes which helps to illustrate how seriously the call to pilgrimage was taken.  So what does this have to do with labyrinths?  According to Daniel K. Connolly, pilgrimages have everything to do with labyrinths.  The earliest construction of a pavement labyrinth in France occurred between 1215 and 1221 at Chartres.  The cathedral itself was begun in 1194, and Connolly argues that its construction was profoundly influenced by the then recent loss of Jerusalem to Muslim forces in 1187.[1]  Because of the political turmoil in Palestine, it was no longer possible for European Christians to travel to Jerusalem, and as a result, many began seeking alternative ways to make this journey, even if they couldn’t physically accomplish it.  The labyrinth was the solution.  Suddenly these symbols became gigantic with diameters of 10+ meters, enabling the pilgrim to walk through its paths.[2]

If one is following this, the next question that needs to be asked is how any of the above information could possibly prove a connection between labyrinths and Jerusalem.  To answer this, Connolly suggests there is a connection between French pavement labyrinths and Situs Hierusalem maps.  These maps often portrayed an idealized, circular Jerusalem in which the inner organization was divided into quadrants based off of the intersection of the cardo maximus and the decumanus maximus.[3] 

                               Situs Hierusalem map[4]



Historically, Roman towns were built up off of these two main roads, and this theme would have been carried over into Jerusalem when Constantine the Great began remodeling the city in the fourth century.[7]  As was discussed in the section dealing with Labyrinthine Evolution, a French monk in the 900s developed the Chartres-type labyrinth by dividing his subject into quarters, and whether intentional or not, the labyrinth can now be seen as a depiction of an idealized Jerusalem.[8]  So, while Christians had lost the right to visit Jerusalem, they still maintained the ability to make pilgrimages to this holy city via the labyrinths in the various cathedrals and churches around France.[9]

More often than not however, historians have traditionally emphasized that labyrinths were used mostly for the Easter mystery plays which, they argue, were meant to demonstrate Christ’s Harrowing of Hell.[10]  Furthermore, there are few primary sources which can adequately support the claims of Imagined Pilgrimage, but it is peculiar that such large objects would only serve a purpose once every year, and it is for that reason that the theme of Imagined Pilgrimage has been included in the possible meanings behind the great French church labyrinths.

[1] Daniel K. Connolly, “At the Center of the World: the Labyrinth Pavement of Chartres Cathedral” from Art and Architecture of Late Medieval Pilgrimage in Northern Europe and the British Isles, Ed. Sarah Blick and Rita Tekippe (Boston, Brill Academic Publishers, 2005) 286.

[2] Ibid., 287.

[3] Ibid., 293-6

[4] Source:"205EE T-O Map, Situs Hierusalem (map of Jerusalem), 13th Century (21.5 X 12.7 Cm).*." Henry Davis Consulting - New Products and Marketing Consultants. Web. 07 Mar. 2010. .

[5] Source: "205GG T-O Map, Circular Plan of Jerusalem, 13 Th Century (26 Cm Diameter).*." Henry Davis Consulting - New Products and Marketing Consultants. Web. 07 Mar. 2010. .

[6] Source:"205FF T-O Map, Map of Jerusalem, 12 Th Century.*." Henry Davis Consulting - New Products and Marketing Consultants. Web. 7 Mar. 2010. . 

[7] Annabel J. Wharton, Refiguring the Post Classical City: Dura Europos, Jerash, Jerusalem, and Ravenna (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995) 87-90.

[8] Wright, The Maze and the Warrior (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001) 23.

[9] Connolly, 302.

[10] Wright, The Maze and the Warrior; Penelope R. Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1990); Hermann Kern, Through the Labyrinth: Designs and Meanings over 5,000 Years (New York, Prestel, 2000); E.L. Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine (Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1977);