Loyola University Chicago

Medieval Studies

labyrinthine evolution

Christian Adoption of a Pagan Symbol

Given the labyrinth’s early absorption into Christianity, it is surprising that there is a 700 year gap between the construction of St. Reparatus’ labyrinth in Algeria and those which would later be constructed in Europe.  Nonetheless, these objects lost none of their potencies and if anything they became more intertwined with the Christian faith with the passage of time.  Arguably, the increasing influence of monasticism in the West enabled the labyrinth to survive, and based off of the Cretan, circular model, various monks began to tweak its shape in countless numbers of manuscripts until the labyrinth became enlarged with the now standard eleven tracks.[1]


                                                                           The image presented here is a typical Cretan-type labyrinth.


At first glance, one might ask why eleven would be a significant number.  Most Christians understand three as connecting to the Trinity; twelve for the Apostles; seven for the days of Creation; ten for the Commandments; 40 connects to Noah and the flood, Exodus, and to Jesus’ fasting and temptations in the desert, so how is eleven a significant number?  Simply put, eleven was seen as a stigmatized number from the time of Saint Augustine of Hippo and throughout much of the Middle Ages because it signified the fallen nature of humanity.  Eleven was perceived as equating to sin and dissonance with God, being one more than the Commandments yet one short of the Apostles.  Eleven, like humanity, was flawed.[3]  Despite this corrupted number, the enlarged labyrinths were geometrically perfect.  During the Middle Ages the cosmos, as a product of God, was seen as being without flaw and as such the circle symbolized divine unity for it has no beginning nor end.[4]

Having been enlarged to become perfectly circular, there was still one more significant alteration to labyrinths which made them entirely Christian, and that was the superimposition of the Cross.[5]  Around the year 900 CE, an otherwise nameless monk probably from the Benedictine monastery of Auxerre, ingeniously placed the cross within the confines of the labyrinth.[6]  He accomplished this by dividing the full circles into halves and quarters. 


                             Chartres-type with half circles and quarters.[7]


As a result, he created an intricate and truly unique subject which was unlike any previous labyrinth.  This model labyrinth is perhaps the most proliferated throughout the world, and is referred to as the Chartres-type labyrinth after its most famous replica, found in Notre-Dame de Chartres.[8]  The Chartres-type labyrinth illustrates the completion of Christianity’s adoption of this otherwise “pagan” subject into the faith.  With its sinful eleven tracks and the incorporation of the Cross, the labyrinth in Western Europe not only looked Christian, but became truly Christian, symbolizing important aspects of the faith.[9]   When the labyrinth was finally put back into stone, the two regions which would build them most extensively would be found in Northern France and Northern and Central Italy. Click on either to find examples from each country!

[1] Wright, The Maze and the Warrior, 20-23.

[2] Source: Your World Religions. Web. 16 Mar. 2010. <http://yourworldreligions.blogspot.com/>.

[3] Wright, 23

[4] Wright, The Maze and the Warrior, 21; 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). 293-296.

[5] Wright, The Maze and the Warrior, 23.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Source: "1. Labyrinths, Introduction." Lavigne Homepage. Web. 5 Mar. 2010. <http://www.lavigne.dk/labyrinth/e1intro.htm>.

[8] Wright, 24-26

[9] Ibid.