History & Use
The Chartres labyrinth is, as with the Trojaborg labyrinth, a so-called unicursal labyrinth. This means that when you have reached the goal in the centre you have been through all the paths. There are no dead ends; you are led all the way in and out, so to speak. The pattern is harmonious, it is one continuous pathway.
The Chartres labyrinth is an old pattern that derives from the Middle Ages. In the city of Chartres in France (just southwest of Paris), you can still see this pattern today in the pavement of the old cathedral.
Several French cathedrals have labyrinths of various kinds. The Chartres labyrinth is an old pattern that derives from the Middle Ages. In the city of Chartres in France (just southwest of Paris), you can still see this pattern today in the pavement of the old cathedral.
You can form a clear picture of how it was used, when you put the records together from various French cathedrals that had, or still have, labyrinths.
In these cathedrals, the clergy danced on the labyrinth at the Easter Sunday devotion, together with the canons and chaplains, a kind of Easter dance to express the joy of life defeating death. At the beginning of the dance, the youngest canon handed over a large leather ball to the dean and the clergy danced solemnly in a triple rhythm (Tripudium) through the labyrinth paths, while the bishop threw the ball back and forth, higher and higher; clearly visualising the higher rising sun at spring time. The dancers formed a long chain and sang the old Easter hymn, ”Victimae Paschali Laudes” (Praises to the Easter Victim), accompanied by the organ.
In later centuries it is recorded that pilgrims would traverse the labyrinth on their knees whilst reciting prayers. This kind of pilgrimage could last a full hour or more.
It is not only French cathedrals that have labyrinths, a number of Scandinavian churches also have, or had, labyrinths painted as frescos.
In four Danish village churches we can, to this very day, see the Trojaborg type of labyrinth painted as frescos in the 15th century, and in six other churches they have been recorded and then covered over.
In Gevninge church near Roskilde, there are two labyrinths, about 50 cm in diameter, painted on the wall the chancel arch. They are visible above the vaults that partly cover the labyrinths.
On one of the vaults in Hesselager church in East Funen, there is a labyrinth measuring about 40 cm in diameter.
In Skive old church, there is a labyrinth painted on the west wall, about 125 cm in diameter, half hidden behind the organ.
The most beautiful labyrinth is probably the one in Roerslev church, east of Middelfart. The labyrinth, unsually painted in two colours, is found above the rood arch and measures 125 x 110 cm.
Of the seven labyrinths that have been covered over (and are thus not visible), six of them are in Jutland and one in Funen.
The six examples situated in Central and East Jutland are in the churches at Bryrup, Gylling, Nim, Skørring (2) and Taaning. The one in Funen is in Vissenbjerg church.
That old ”heathen” labyrinths found their way into the Christian churches at all during the Middle Ages, was due to the fact that the characters of the Greek legends were replaced by Christian symbolism. The labyrinth became a symbol of the way to God, the Minotaur was the devil, and Jesus succeeded Theseus as the hero who found the way. Maybe it is the words of St. John: ”I am the way, the truth and the life” (14. chap. 6) that the labyrinths in many Nordic frescos refer to.
The photos from the churches in France and Denmark are by Jeff Saward, Labyrinthos, www.labyrinthos.net.