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Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, [1922], at

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THE consideration of labyrinths worked in Roman mosaic pavements leads us on to a very interesting development of the subject which deserves a chapter to itself, namely, the Labyrinth in the Church.

Probably the oldest known example of this nature is that in the ancient basilica of Reparatus at Orléansville (Algeria), an edifice which is believed to date from the fourth century A.D. In the pavement near the north-west entrance of the church is the design shown in outline in Fig. 42. It measures about 8 ft. in diameter and shows great resemblance to the Roman pavement found at Harpham and the tomb-mosaic at Susa. At the centre is a jeu-de-lettres on the words SANCTA ECLESIA, which may be read in any direction, except diagonally, commencing at the centre. But for the employment of these words the labyrinth in question might well have been conceived to be a Roman relic utilised by the builders of the church to ornament their pavement. Such pavement-labyrinths, however, with or without central figures or other embellishments, and of various dimensions and composition, are found in many of the old churches of France and Italy.

They seem to have been constructed chiefly during the twelfth century, and although several of them have been destroyed many fine examples still remain. Some

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FIG. 42.—Labyrinth in Church of Reparatus, Orléansville, Algeria.<br> (Prevost.)
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FIG. 42.—Labyrinth in Church of Reparatus, Orléansville, Algeria.

FIG. 43.—Labyrinth in Lucca Cathedral. (Durand.)
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FIG. 43.—Labyrinth in Lucca Cathedral. (Durand.)

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are formed on the walls instead of the pavements, and in such cases are of smaller dimensions.

On the whole, too, those in the Italian churches are much smaller than the French specimens. On the wall of Lucca Cathedral (Fig. 43) is one of a diameter of only 1 ft. 7½ in. It formerly enclosed at the centre a representation of Theseus and the Minotaur, but owing to the friction of many generations of tracing fingers this has

FIG. 44.—Labyrinth in S. Michele, Pavia. (Ciampini.)
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FIG. 44.—Labyrinth in S. Michele, Pavia. (Ciampini.)

become effaced. Opposite the "entrance" is the inscription:


A similar small labyrinth, with a central Theseus-Minotaur design, is to be found on the wall of the church of San Michele Maggiore at Pavia (Fig. 44). It is thought to be of tenth-century construction. This is one of the few cases where the Minotaur is represented with a human head and a beast's body—as a sort of Centaur, in fact. It is accompanied by the words "TESEUS INTRAVIT MONSTRUMQUE BIFORME NECAVIT."


Fig. 45. Labyrinth in S. Maria-di-Trastavera, Rome. (Durand)
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Fig. 45. Labyrinth in S. Maria-di-Trastavera, Rome. (Durand)

Fig. 46. Labyrinth in S. Vitale, Ravenna. (Durand)
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Fig. 46. Labyrinth in S. Vitale, Ravenna. (Durand)


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Of about the same period was the example in the church of San Savino at Piacenza. It is described by P. M. Campi in his "Ecclesiastical History of Piacenza" (1651), under the year A.D. 903. The signs of the Zodiac were placed in juxtaposition to it. The accompanying legend in this case consisted of four hexameters, to the effect that the labyrinth represented the world we live in, broad at the entrance, but narrow at the exit, so that he who is ensnared by the joys of this world, and weighed down by his vices, can regain the doctrine of life only with difficulty.


In the Cathedral of Cremona, which, like Pavia and Piacenza, is on the banks of the River Po, is a mutilated mosaic of early date—possibly eighth or ninth century—showing part of an interlaced pattern which was evidently intended to refer to the Cretan Labyrinth, as it was placed close to two figures in fighting attitudes and armed with swords and shields, the right-hand figure having the head of a beast and the label "CENTAVRVS." (There was apparently little distinction between a Minotaur and a Centaur in the minds of some mediaeval artists.)

A rather larger specimen, 5 ft. in diameter, may be seen in the church of Sta. Maria-in-Aquiro, Rome. It is composed of bands of porphyry and yellow and green marble, surrounding a central plate of porphyry, and is similar in design to that at Lucca. Another church in the same city, Sta. Maria-di-Trastavera, has a labyrinth composed of variously coloured marbles worked in the floor.

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[paragraph continues] It is 11 ft. across and was probably constructed about 1190 A.D. (Fig. 45). It is now somewhat mutilated, but was originally a most beautiful example. The fact that the inner paths consist of a series of concentric rings rather suggests that it has at some time been repaired without regard to the original design; unless we accept the hypothesis of M. Durand that they bore a symbolic

FIG. 47.—Labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral. (Gailhabaud.)
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FIG. 47.—Labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral. (Gailhabaud.)

reference to the various degrees of beatitude by which the soul approaches heaven, as figured by Dante. Fig. 46 shows another old Italian specimen. It is nearly 11½ ft. in diameter and is to be found in the church of San Vitale, Ravenna.

Designs of this nature were widely employed by the mediaeval church builders in France, and, although many of them were destroyed at the Revolution and at other times, several fine examples still exist. They seem to have

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been mostly built at a rather later date than those already described. The largest now remaining is that in Chartres Cathedral (Fig. 47). It is formed of blue and white stones and is about 40 ft. in diameter. The French poet Bouthrays, in his "Histoire de Chartres" (1624), describes it in a set of Latin verses. A fine sketch of it appears in the "Album" of the thirteenth-century architect, Villard de

FIG. 48.—Labyrinth in Amiens Cathedral. (Gailhabaud.)
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FIG. 48.—Labyrinth in Amiens Cathedral. (Gailhabaud.)

[paragraph continues] Honnecourt. In a ninth-century French manuscript, formerly belonging to the Abbey of St.-Germain-des-Prés, there is a sort of frontispiece consisting of a labyrinth of similar type, with a funny little horned Minotaur at the centre, seated, hands on knees, on a kind of throne.

The Chartres labyrinth formerly went by the name of "La Lieue," an expression which would ordinarily be rendered as "the league." The French league, however, was about 2282 yards, a much greater length than the

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total extent of the path in any of the existing pavement-labyrinths, that at Chartres, for example, having a length of only about 150 yards. Possibly the term had some etymological connection with the old Gaulish measure leuca, leuga or leuva, which was 1500 paces.

In other cases the labyrinth was known as a "Chemin de Jérusalem" "daedale," or "meandre," terms which need

FIG. 49.—Labyrinth in Parish Church, St. Quentin. (Gailhabaud).
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FIG. 49.—Labyrinth in Parish Church, St. Quentin. (Gailhabaud).

no explanation. The centre was called "ciel" or "Jérusalem." The labyrinth formerly in the nave of Amiens Cathedral was larger than that at Chartres, being 42 ft. in diameter (Fig. 48). It was constructed in 1288 and was destroyed in 1825. In plan it was similar to that at the entrance to the parish church of St. Quentin (Fig. 49). The latter, however, is only 34½ ft. in diameter.

Rheims Cathedral formerly possessed a fine design of this class (Fig. 50). It was laid down in 1240 and was


Fig. 41.<br> Bronze Plaquette, Italian, XVIth Century. (British Museum)
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Fig. 41.
Bronze Plaquette, Italian, XVIth Century. (British Museum)

Fig. 50. Labyrinth in Rheims Cathedral. (Gailhabaud)
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Fig. 50. Labyrinth in Rheims Cathedral. (Gailhabaud)

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Fig. 51. Amiens.<br> Central Plate of Labyrinth. (Gailhabaud)
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Fig. 51. Amiens.
Central Plate of Labyrinth. (Gailhabaud)

Fig. 52. Labyrinth in Bayeux Cathedral. (Amé)
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Fig. 52. Labyrinth in Bayeux Cathedral. (Amé)


composed of blue stones or marbles. It was destroyed in 1779 by order of a certain Canon Jacquemart, who objected to the noise made by children and others in tracing its course during the progress of divine service.

The labyrinths of Rheims, Chartres, and Amiens possessed in common a feature which has given rise to much discussion, namely, a figure or figures at the centre representing, it is believed, the architects of the edifices.

That of Amiens is preserved in Amiens Museum and consists of an octagonal grey marble slab (Fig. 51) with a central cross, between the limbs of which are arranged figures representing Bishop Evrard and the three architects, Robert de Luzarches, Thomas de Cormont and his son Regnault, together with four angels. A long inscription accompanied it, relating to the foundation of the Cathedral.

There is a very fine labyrinth in the chapter-house of Bayeux Cathedral (Fig. 52). It measures 12 ft. across and is composed of circles of tiles ornamented with shields, griffins and fleur-de-lis, separated by bands of small, plain, black tiles.

Sens Cathedral formerly possessed a circular labyrinth (Fig. 53), 30 ft. in diameter and formed of incised lines filled in with lead, but it was destroyed in 1769. A similar specimen in Auxerre Cathedral was demolished about 1690.

In The Builder for May 12, 1916, appeared a diagram accompanied by a note from a firm of publishers who stated that they had received the sketch from one of their travellers who was then serving on the Arras front. "He informs us," they state, "that it is not a puzzle, but a plan of the labyrinth under the cathedral. He found the prints in a ruin in the vicinity, a house which appears to have been occupied by a librarian from what he saw among the debris." The sketch in question is of an octagonal pattern resembling that of the St. Quentin

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labyrinth, and represents the pavement-labyrinth that formerly existed in the now ruined cathedral, not, of course, a system of subterranean passages, as the correspondent evidently inferred. It was about 34½ ft. in diameter and was composed of small blue and yellow squares. The destruction of this labyrinth cannot be debited to the account of the aggressors in the Great War, as it was carried out during the French Revolution.

FIG. 53.—Labyrinth in Sens Cathedral. (Gailhabaud.)
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FIG. 53.—Labyrinth in Sens Cathedral. (Gailhabaud.)

A labyrinth of rather striking design (Fig. 54) was formerly in the pavement of the old Abbey of St. Bertin, an edifice which has long been a picturesque ruin, in the lower part of the town of St. Omer. A description of it was first published nearly a century ago by Emmanuel Wallet (or Vallet). Our figure, which accords with his notes, differs slightly from that which has usually accompanied the references of subsequent writers—many of whom, by the way, erroneously speak of it as being in the cathedral, which is in the upper part of the town, and at some distance from St. Bertin. Most illustrations of

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the labyrinth in question show the path as crossing itself at one point, an arrangement which is most unlikely to have been adopted. Wallet based his description on a manuscript which, judging by the watermark in the paper, he attributed to a former English student at the college in the vicinity.

FIG. 54.—Labyrinth in Abbey of St. Bertin, St. Omer. (Wallet.)
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FIG. 54.—Labyrinth in Abbey of St. Bertin, St. Omer. (Wallet.)

This labyrinth was apparently destroyed at about the same time as that at Rheims, and for a similar reason.

In the cathedral there is no pavement-labyrinth, although it may possibly have possessed one in former times, but beneath the organ, at the west end of the nave, is a curiously engraved slab which is worth mentioning

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in this connection, for it represents a sort of "chemin de Jérusalem," though not indeed of the usual type. It shows, around a large circle, mountains, rivers, towns, roads, and animals, together with the word IhERVSALEM, whilst the interior of the circle is divided into three horizontal compartments, in each of which are placed various objects indistinguishable through wear. The slab was very

FIG. 55.—Labyrinth in Poitiers Cathedral. (Auber.)
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FIG. 55.—Labyrinth in Poitiers Cathedral. (Auber.)

much worn when described by Wallet and has possibly been replaced by now.

A queer type of labyrinth was formerly represented in the Cathedral of Poitiers. It perished long ago, but for some time subsequently there remained on the wall of the north aisle a sketch of it (Fig. 55), which, however, gave no clue to the dimensions of the original. It will be seen that the construction is such that he who traces the path eventually emerges—like the poet of the "Rubaiyat"—by that same door at which he entered; he will have

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encountered no "stops," but he may have "looped the loop" an indefinite number of times.

In the old abbey of Toussaints, Châlons-sur-Marne, which was destroyed in 1544, there was a series of tiles each bearing a small labyrinth of the conventional Cretan type (Fig. 56. See plate, p. 74). Pavement-tiles with labyrinths were also found in the Abbaye de Pont l’Abbé (Finistère).

A pavement labyrinth has been described as existing in the floor of the guard chamber of the Abbey of St. Stephen at Caen. Dawson Turner, in his "Tour in Normandy," thus refers to it: "The floor is laid with tiles, each near five inches square, baked almost to vitrification. Eight rows of these tiles, running east to west, are charged with different coats of arms, said to be those of the families who attended Duke William in his invasion of England. The intervals between these rows are filled up with a kind of tessellated pavement, the middle whereof represents a maze or labyrinth, about ten feet in diameter, and so artfully contrived that, were we to suppose a man following all the intricate meanders of the volutes, he could not travel less than a mile before he got from one end to the other. The remainder of the floor is inlaid with small squares of different colours, placed alternately and formed into draught or chess boards, for the amusement of the soldiers while on guard." The pavement was destroyed in 1802.

It has frequently been stated that a pavement labyrinth existed in a church at Aix near Marseilles, but probably this is due to confusion with the Roman pavement already referred to.

The only examples recorded as having existed in Germany were situated in two churches at Cologne, but these have long since disappeared.

In view of the widespread occurrence of these devices in mediaeval churches it would be surprising if the idea were not sometimes utilised by modern architects

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attempting to reproduce the spirit of the old buildings, and in fact this was done in the case of the prize plans submitted 1 by the English architects Clutton and Burges for the Church of Notre-Dame de la Treille at Lille. Burges designed for the nave a "Chemin de Jérusalem" of a wonderful pattern, the topography of "Jerusalem" being based upon the account in the "Ecclesiastical History" of the Venerable Bede (V. ch. 16). A good modern

FIG. 57.—Labyrinth in Ely Cathedral. (W. H. M.)
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FIG. 57.—Labyrinth in Ely Cathedral. (W. H. M.)

example, 20 ft. square, may be seen in the pavement of Ely Cathedral, near the west door (Fig. 57). It was constructed by Sir Gilbert Scott during his restorations in 18 70. Some other modern specimens will be mentioned presently.

As to the function and meaning of the old church labyrinths, various opinions have been held. Some authorities have thought that they were merely introduced as a

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symbol of the perplexities and intricacies which beset the Christian's path. Others considered them to typify the entangling nature of sin or of any deviation from the rectilinear path of Christian duty. It has often been asserted, though on what evidence is not clear, that the larger examples were used for the performance of miniature pilgrimages in substitution for the long and tedious journeys formerly laid upon penitents. Some colour is lent to this supposition by the name "Chemin de Jérusalem." In the days of the first crusades it was a common practice for the confessor to send the peccant members of his flock either to fight against the infidel, or, after the victory of Geoffrey of Bouillon, to visit the Holy Sepulchre. As enthusiasm for the crusades declined, shorter pilgrimages were substituted, usually to the shrine of some saint, such as Our Lady of Loretto, or St. Thomas of Canterbury, and it is quite possible that, at a time when the soul had passed out of the crusades and the Church's authority was on the ebb, a journey on the knees around the labyrinth's sinuosities was prescribed as an alternative to these pilgrimages. Perhaps this type of penance was from the first imposed on those who, through weakness or any other reason, were unable to undertake long travels.

In the case of the wall labyrinths, of course, the journey would be less arduous still, being performed by the index finger.

Whether such practices ever obtained or not, most writers who have had occasion to mention church labyrinths during the past century have adopted, more or less without question, the view that not only were the labyrinths used in this way, but that they were in fact designed for the purpose.

This view seems to rest chiefly on a statement by J. B. F. Géruzez in his "Description of the City of Rheims" (1817), to the effect that the labyrinth which formerly lay in the cathedral was in origin an object of

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devotion, being the emblem of the interior of the Temple of Jerusalem, but Géruzez quotes no authority for his assertion. Another explanation, based upon the occurrence of the figures of the architects or founders in certain of the designs, is that the labyrinth was a sort of masonic seal, signifying that the pious aim of the builder had been to raise to the glory of God a structure to vie with the splendours of the traditional Labyrinth. It is also said that in some cases the "Chemins" were used for processional purposes.

Some writers have held that the labyrinth was inserted in the church as typifying the Christian's life or the devious course of those who yield to temptation. Some have thought that it represented the path from the house of Pilate to Calvary, pointing out that Chateaubriand, in his "Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem," mentioned two hours as the period which he took to repeat Christ's journey, and that the same time would be taken in traversing the average pavement labyrinth on the knees.

The use of the labyrinth as a simile for the Christian's life is shown in a stone inscription in the Museum at Lyons:

                  STEPHANVS • FECIT OC.

Whether this inscription was ever attached to a labyrinthine design is not known.

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It is strange if, amongst all the great mass of mediaeval ecclesiastical literature, there is actually no indication of the use or significance of these monuments in the service of the Church; but no light appears to be forthcoming from this source, and certainly the writings of the chief authorities of these times give no support to any of the theories mentioned above.

FIG. 58.—Labyrinth in Church at Bourn, Cambs. (W. H. M.)
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FIG. 58.—Labyrinth in Church at Bourn, Cambs. (W. H. M.)

It is noteworthy that in none of the known examples do any distinctively Christian emblems occur, and that, amongst all the myriad inscriptions, paintings, and carvings of the early Christians, in the catacombs of Rome and elsewhere, the labyrinth never once figures.

So far as these islands are concerned the practice of placing labyrinths in churches does not seem to have become common.

In the "Architectural Dictionary" (1867) mention is

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made of one formerly existing in Canterbury Cathedral, but no particulars are given.

On the floor below the tower of the church at Bourn, Cambridgeshire, is a maze (Fig. 58) worked in black and red tiles, the centre being occupied by the font, the step of which forms the terminus of the path. From the fact that an intermediate portion of the path is concealed beneath the base of the font it is plain that the position of the latter is an after-thought, and from the design of the maze, no less than from the character of the tiles of which it is composed, the work would appear to be of comparatively modern date. The modern specimen at Ely has already been mentioned.

There is also a labyrinth, in this case engraved on the floor of the church porch, at Alkborough, Lincolnshire, but this is a modern replica of the turf maze in the locality—a point which brings us to the subject of our next chapter.


66:1 These plans, although awarded the prize, were not adopted, the designs actually carried out being some by a native architect who obtained tenth place in the competition.

Next: Chapter X. Turf Labyrinths