Chartres Labyrinth & Symbolism

Chartres Cathedral underwent one of several reconstructions in the early 13th century, during the Gothic period. People believed they were constructing the most Divine thing on earth in honour of God, and the layout and architecture of both the cathedral and the labyrinth were made to fit the demands of sacred geometry.

Sacred geometry is the study and application of the unfolding of number in space. Some examples of number associations within sacred geometry are:

  1. for creation, wholeness, God
  2. for essence and substance of creation
  3. for the Holy Spirit, Trinity
  4. days of creation
  5. days of the week, completeness


Senior church authorities in 13th century France gave master builders at Chartres details of the special numbers and symbolism on which they must base their design. The significance attached to particular numbers is drawn from several models and sources including Ancient Greet thought, especially Plato, and St Augustine’s reflections on the divine order of creation: “God made the world in measure, number and weight: and ignorance of number prevents us from understanding things that are set down in Scripture in a figurative and mystical way.”

The Chartres labyrinth was probably built 1215-1235. This was when pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem was made difficult and dangerous by the Crusades. The Church designated seven European cathedrals, mainly in France, to become “Jerusalem” for pilgrims. The labyrinth became the final stage of pilgrimage, serving as a symbolic entry into the Celestial City of Jerusalem.

All seven cathedrals used the 11-circuit labyrinth design but there were some adaptations, such as at Amiens, where the labyrinth was octagonal. These labyrinths were sometimes called ‘new Jerusalem’ or ‘road to Jerusalem’. Some pilgrims completed the labyrinth on their knees as an act of penitence and to gain forgiveness.

The 11-circuit labyrinth has an asymmetrical, mathematically and visually complex pattern in which every quadrant is different. The path twists and turns so that you move towards the centre and out again – as if towards and away from God.

At this time most people were illiterate so sacred geometry provided a means of communicating complex theological meaning. The Chartres labyrinth incorporates sacred geometry in 3 ways, for example:


Manifest

  1. The central 6-petalled rose symbolising love and union with God, as well as representing the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. Each petal of the central rose, from left of the entrance path in clockwise direction, represents: mineral, plant, animal, human, angelic and the divine.
  2. There is a cruciform shape across the entire design

Symbolic

  1. The circle represents heaven, God, and spirit. It also symbolises wholeness (alpha & omega), eternity (no beginning or end). The number one is also associated with this theme.
  2. The centre of the circle is geometrically the point of perfect balance, also called the “still point”. At Frederic Wallis House the labyrinth developed an extraordinary but clearly demonstrable feature of a ‘rod of sound’ at this point.
  3. The square that is incorporated into the floor plan around the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral represents earth, man and matter.
  4. The 4 quadrants of the labyrinth represent the seasons and the cardinal points of N, S, E, and W.
  5. The lunations around the edge correspond to the number of days in a lunar cycle – 28.5 per quadrant, 113 visible (114 including the one that is missing a the entrance).


Hidden

1. The invisible 13-point star is crucial to the entire design, positioning many features of the labyrinth design and representing Christ and the 12 disciples.

The labyrinth within Chartres Cathedral is positioned with its centre overlying the key point for other architectural measurements based on the principles of sacred geometry. If the great West Rose Window of Chartres Cathedral were to be folded down on a hinge at the base of the wall it would cover the labyrinth exactly. This relationship signifies the link between our ‘journey of life’ and the Last Judgement, which is the theme of this window. It also illuminates the concept of divine light illuminating our journey through life.