Last Saturday, May 4th, marked the 5th annual World Labyrinth Day. People from all over the world walked labyrinths together in celebration of this cultural construction, “Walk[ing] as One at 1″.1 Labyrinths have existed for over 4000 years across multiple cultures and settings, including classical, Roman, medieval, and contemporary. Today, the medieval labyrinth has endured as one of the most popular styles of labyrinth construction. In one manuscript I studied a few weeks ago, I came across a labyrinth image among a collection of other game problems.
This labyrinth depicts a typical eleven-ringed circuit path around the circle—a striking characteristic of medieval labyrinths, though some paths can range from six to fifteen circuits. The four-fold symmetry and oscillation along the path as you move form each area of the circle shares this construction with some older, simpler Roman labyrinths as well. In the ninth century a monk named Otfrid took the classical seven-circuit labyrinth pattern and added four extra circuits, creating the more complex eleven-circuit labyrinth design known as the “medieval labyrinth.”2 His drawing in the end leaf of his Book of Gospels became a base for the development of a number of later thirteenth and fourteenth century labyrinths found in cathedrals and churches across Europe. The spread of the eleven-circuit design in France and its construction on the pavement floor of Chartres Cathedral in 1201 attests to its significance as a religious symbol in the Middle Ages. In fact, the “Chartres Labyrinth” is one of the most walked labyrinths in the world, and the labyrinth found in the manuscript is almost identical.
Unlike mazes, which consist of a series of forking paths and dead ends, a labyrinth is a unicursal winding path that leads to the centre of the circle—a centre that sometimes represented heaven or Jerusalem as the final destination in the Middle Ages. The development, popularity, and complexity of the symbol in the Middle Ages seems to show the labyrinth’s ability to represent medieval ideas about redemption, devotion, and faith. Very little evidence or documentation exists to demonstrate the overall purpose of medieval labyrinths on church walls, manuscript leaves, and paves stones, though they may have had multiple uses as a symbol of redemption, place of spiritual reflection, space for prayer, or a site for learning matters of the soul.3 Many medieval labyrinths, such as those found at Chartres, Amiens and Reims, were designed as paths for personal meditation. The labyrinths marked in manuscripts and pavement stones may reflect a bounded space in which to contemplate the path of the soul through life.
The image of the labyrinth in this particular manuscript adheres to this concept as well. A Latin riddle appears above the manuscript, signaling its potency as an icon of spiritual reflection:
Hon hic introeas nisi que sint hec tria dicas:
Quod facit & num fit . facit & fit . non facit & fit
While the instructions at first glance seem to ask whether the path through the labyrinth is sound, the three choices (“tria dicas”) rather highlight the three locations after death: purgatory, heaven, or hell. The path through the labyrinth on the page provides a physical space for such contemplation of the afterlife. While the manuscript pages do not portray the same type of performative experience as the larger paved labyrinths (which can measure 10-40 feet in diameter), it still enables the reader’s mind to focus on a specific space: the singular path directs the eye (and possibly a finger) and the time passing in this meditative activity furthers the embodied practice. The aesthetic space thus becomes a tool in which to gain spiritual insight.
Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress describes the ritual of moving through labyrinths as transformative spiritual experiences:
When we contact the Light within, we can become
entangled in darkness because our shadow emerges and
we are unprepared for its impact. Curiously, for most people
who have a profound experience in the labyrinth that involves
confrontation, it happens in the most loving way. The person is
able over time to integrate it without much conflict. Such is the
grace of the labyrinth (135).
While she speaks of labyrinths poetically and spiritually, Artress nevertheless captures the feeling of change; the meditation, in other words, offers a possibility for renewal—a transformation of the self.
Furthermore, the second image on the page depicts another spiritual journey more explicitly, portraying a map of the heavens and a path from vite (“life”) to mortis (“death”):
That these images appear alongside gaming boards and chess problems reveals a close relationship between mind and soul: the first images provide spiritual nourishment while the later problems provide intellectual (and pedagogical) stimulation. The latter serves the former and they are intertwined as “problems” by the scribe in the manuscript.
Can you make it through the labyrinth?
Artess, Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1995.
Bandiera, Nancy Ann. “The Medieval Labyrinth Ritual and Performance: A Grounded Theory Study of Liminality and Spiritual Experience.” Unpd dissertation. University of Texas at Austin, 2006. PDF.