Loyola University Chicago

Medieval Studies

initial christianization

With the proclamation of the Edict of Milan by Emperor Constantine the Great in 313 CE, Christianity became one of the many recognized cults of the empire.[1]  Misconstrued by many, the edict did not make Christianity the sole religion of Rome, but instead, it merely signified the end of persecutions.  For the first time, Christians were able to worship openly and the various communities began to triumphantly built churches throughout the empire.  It was during these early years of recognition that Christianity adopted the labyrinth. Unlike Classical conceptions, Christian labyrinths were almost exclusively placed within the sacred spaces of churches, which was a trend that would continue until the dawn of the Renaissance nearly a thousand years later.[2]  Furthermore, what had once been regarded as a symbol of fear was now transformed into a representation of hope. 

While it was not uncommon for the images of Theseus and the Minotaur to still appear at the center of a labyrinth, their presence has often been taken to be an analogy for Jesus’ victory over death and sin.[3]  Increasingly however, Christian labyrinths would omit these epic foes from the labyrinth and replace them with something which was perceived as being more significant.  For example, the earliest known Christian labyrinth comes from the floor of St. Reparata in El Asnam (Orleansville), Algeria and at its center is the word “Sancta Eclesia.”[4]  Constructed in about 324 CE, the labyrinth’s presence demonstrates how quickly Christianity incorporated this symbol into the faith.  Being built within the sacred spaces of churches, labyrinths were no longer merely decorations to hold the interests of guests, they had become something more significant: a representation for the individual’s journey through a world of temptations in search of God.


                                                            St. Reparata[5]

[1] Kern, Hermann, Through the Labyrinth, (New York, Prestel, 2000) 143; Wright, Craig, The Maze and the Warrior (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001) 16.

[2] Wright, “The Ancient and Early Christian Maze” from The Maze and the Warrior, 16-18.

[3] 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). 285-314.

[4] Wright, The Maze and the Warrior, 17-18; Herman Kern, Through the Labyrinth: Designs and Meanings over 5000 Years (Art & Design), (New York, Prestel, 2000); Craig M. Wright, “The Maze as Symbol in the Church” in The Maze and the Warrior (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001) 29-37; Penelope R. Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

[5] Source: W.H. Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths, (Detroit, Singing Tree Press, 1969). Accessed from http://www.sacred-texts.com.