Loyola University Chicago

Medieval Studies

The Labyrinth of Reims

Type: Octagonal
Status: Destroyed


While the exact date of its installation is unknown, the labyrinth of Reims is thought to have been placed in the church around 1290.[2]  Unique, when compared to its contemporaries, the labyrinth of Reims was octagonal in shape, and had four bastion-like towers which sat at its four corners.  From surviving sketches, we can gather that its pattern did not follow the traditional Chartres-type model and is thought to have had a width of about 10.2 meters.[3]  Additionally, while the Chartres-type labyrinths tend to be unadorned, the one in Reims had several unique embellishments.  Within each tower, an image depicting one of the four great architects who served the cathedral during its construction would have been seen.[4]

But why would the labyrinth be octagonal? The answer to this might be fairly simple, it could have been meant as a complimentary feature to the baptismal font, which was located nearby.  A traditional font, even today, is octagonal, which symbolically points to Christ’s resurrection on the eighth day.[5]  Therefore, while the labyrinth in Chartres might have had a stronger connection with the Harrowing of Hell, the one in Reims seems to have been focused toward rebirth.  The baptismal connection could also stem from another, secondary source as well, for it was here that Clovis, first Christian king of the Franks was baptized.  As such, themes of baptism and rebirth would have had a significant meaning for this cathedral and perhaps the labyrinth of Reims was a reflection of this momentous event in the French Church’s history.

Like the labyrinth of Auxerre, a surviving account from the mid-fourteenth century describes an Easter ritual in Reims which incorporated the labyrinth into the overall performance:

The Easter rites of Reims demanded that the clergy arrange themselves in a long line extending from the great west door to the entry of the choir on the east, where the Lord hung on the cross of the rood screen.  In theirs midst was the labyrinth.  So disposed, the archbishop and his servants sang of the Israelites’ exit from hellish Egypt and of Christ’s ultimate victory.  Looking down this clerical line from east to west, the faithful could visualize the Lord’s two great ordeals, his suffering on the cross and his trial in the hellish maze.[6]

Because this event is observed in the fourteenth century, well after the labyrinth’s creation, there has been some debate amongst scholars as to whether the labyrinth was created primarily to accompany this mystery play.  For more information, look to Religious Dances.  Furthermore, the above mentioned description stops short of where it should have.  With the clergy lined up, stretching from the western door to the entrance of the choir in the east, a symbolic teaching is being illustrated about the life of Jesus.  Yes, it highlights Christ’s earthly suffering and his trials in hell but the line of clergymen did not stop at the labyrinth.  Instead, it continued onward to the choir, which points toward Christ’s ultimate ascension into heaven.       

Sadly, the labyrinth of Reims no longer exists.  Like many religious symbols from the Middle Ages, labyrinths would not escape the severe gaze of the Enlightenment toward what the educated perceived as symbols of superstition.  Viewed as a relic of irrational times, the local chapter of monks accepted a donation of one thousand francs for the labyrinth’s removal in 1778, and in doing so, erased nearly five hundred years of tradition.[7]  

[1] Source: "Center for Jungian Studies - Adult Reading Forum." Center for Jungian Studies - WELCOME. Web. 07 Mar. 2010. .

[2] Wright, The Maze and the Warrior, 50; Also cited as an important source by several scholars: Charles Cerf, Histoire et description de Notre-Dame de Reims, 2 vols. (Reims, 1861).

[3] Wright, 50-52; Dominique Naert, Le Labyrinthe de la cathedrale de Reims (Fontenay-sous-Bois, 1996); Hermann Kern, Through the Labyrinth: Designs and Meanings over 5,000 Years (New York, Prestel, 2000) 160.

[4] Ibid; See also Robert Branner, “The Labyrinth of Reims Cathedral,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 21 (1962), 18-25.

[5] Peterson, J.B. (1907). Baptismal Font. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 15, 2010 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02274a.htm; The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Catholic Bible P, 1993) Mk 16:1.

[6] Wright, The Maze and the Warrior, 57-59.  See also note #87 on p. 310.  Here Wright lists the manuscript which preserves this text: Reims, Bibliotheque municipale, MS 330, fols. 40 and 41V; MS 331, fol. 30; Processionale secundum usum insignis ac Metropolis Ecclesiae Rhemensis, par Antoine Colard (Reims, 1571), 102.

[7] Wright, 52.