The labyrinth at the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres was constructed during the first decades of the thirteenth century and is nearly thirteen metres in diameter.
It is an ancient symbol relating to spiritual wholeness, with powerful patterns within a sphere that merge the sublime and beautiful; where symbolically heaven and earth meet. It is a complex pattern of great meaning.
“…your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left. Your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “this is the way, walk it.”*
Walking a labyrinth, in a nutshell, is meant to enable humankind and to awaken the knowledge already encoded into our DNA.^ It is at the threshold of life, positioned between ‘the metaphysical and mundane reality’. It is a traditional symbol, one that provides support for a person’s faith or can help the uninitiated to find the way forward.
A UNESCO World Heritage site The Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres is one of the most powerful and influential sacred spaces in the world. Even in the time of the Druids, the site on which it is built at Chartres was recognized for its divine atmosphere.
Long before the Christ event pilgrims came to this pagan site it was dedicated to the earth Goddess.
The Cathedral building through its design, reflects the eternal harmony believed present in nature.
Thousands and thousands of pilgrims still flock there each year to experience this great sacred space, constructed from 1194, over a hundred year period, in what we now know as the Gothic style.
To come upon the cathedral as you drive across the countryside is indeed a special experience. Its towers, the highest peaks in the region, can be seen from miles away like great beacons of hope.
It provides a moving impression, because it is a perfect expression of the Gothic impulse to verticality.
The pyramidal composition of its forces and integration of every element of its design comes together in an overwhelming unity of presence. While many today seem to remain confused or disenchanted about religion or religious beliefs, there seems to be an overwhelming desire to understand and connect with the spirit.
On June 17, 2013 the Centennial Park Trust put a privately funded sandstone Labyrinth at the forefont of their current plans to revitalise the parklands following the completion of the fundraising efforts driven by Sydney enthusiast, Emily Simpson, to pay for its construction. They are saying it will be a thing of great beauty – a significant public artwork.
Here is one of the fundamental and early pathways toward a higher power, or existence, coming into modern use.
Ancient designers of labyrinths would be pleased. Labyrinths such as the one at Chartres were originally laid out in stone or tiles inside a church, so that the penitent could complete the journey on his/her knees, saying particular prayers at particular points. Symbolically they were walking the road to the holy city of Jerusalem.
These days chairs often cover the labyrinth at Chartres, although they are removed one day a week so that visitors can not only see it, but also use its sacred pathway.
Symbols often provide the most powerful images of life. Together with many myths that accompany them, they can often compensate for what cannot be comprehended. They can seem to imply far more what seems to be there and, the more they imply the more potent they become.
‘Theseus was aided in his escape from the dark Labyrinth by means of the light’**
Labyrinths go way back in time over 4000 years.
There was one on the island of Crete that became associated with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Its structure can be found visually represented on ancient Cretan coins. Many of the early Christian labyrinths had a cross at their centre, which became a focus for meditation.
The great round Rose window and the circular labyrinth set into the floor at Chartres are all about the circle being a symbol for one, without beginning or end. They are also both about the ‘eye of God’, that when seen lit by a path of illumination streaming through coloured glass; is an experience that is extremely empowering.
The circle is fundamental, containing the essence of many other symbols; it is all about the sun and earth, the heavens and the moon and the movements of the sky, which happens in repetitive cycles.
It suggests the eternal and infinite and means that a labyrinth today has become universally acknowledged as a symbol for both the human essence and spirit.
Since the 12th century pilgrims from all over the world flocked to Chartres to venerate a tunic in the crypt said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary on the day of Christ’s birth. When I was there last, some 5000 people arrived from India in bus loads that stretched as far as the eye could see. They all lined up to touch the statue of the Virgin Mary. Not many churches in the world could hold such crowds inside and out, but Chartres can. It is truly an amazing place and space.
The incredible atmosphere of age and its sense of continuity provide a deeply emotional, as well as spiritual experience. If you are going to France, religious or no, its definitely a journey to add to your agenda. The town of Chartres itself is truly delightful and well worth a visit.
At Chartres the labyrinth has an eleven-circuit design, which is divided into four quadrants. These are four crossroads along the way for pilgrims to stop and contemplate the direction of their journey, and life. Geometry and mathematics created both spatial and emotional harmony and helped the pilgrim achieve his goal, of finding heaven on earth.
Four was an important number in the sacred world – The Book of Genesis describes it as an idealized pattern ‘And a river went out of Eden to water the garden and from hence it was parted and became into four heads’.
This was later transmitted through the visual medium of garden design, by being transferred outside and laid out in turf and gravel.
From buildings to gardens and from carpets to designs on ceramic tiles, there is a real tie up and connection with numbers. The squares, circles and octagons that made up the garden were there for good theological reasons.
The square represented the earthly order of things, the circle indicated God’s celestial perfection of eternity, and the octagon, the circle squared – signified humankind’s earthly struggle to achieve everlasting unity with God’s higher plans for us.
These ideas are not exclusive to the Christian church.
The Islamic foursquare garden signified the four quarters of the universe, with the four rivers of life intersecting at the garden’s centre.
The Persians, and later Islam in its traditions, balance the lack of generosity by nature creating gardens using the reassuring colour of living green, the colour that became a sign for Islam.
The garden enjoyed an interlocking complexity with architecture.
Tiled and well-ordered courtyards were symmetrically pre-occupied, representing transcendental purity and perfection, in direct contrast to mankind’s and natures predictable imperfection.
Labyrinths are not to be confused with the garden maze, so popular in Tudor times in England.
A maze is all about a puzzle that needs solving and requires logical and analytical activity to take place so that you can find your way out. It has many paths that end up in a dead end.
There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth, and it only has one path.
Its purpose is about creativity, imagination, contemplation and choice, about focusing your energy, finding your centre, reflecting on the experience, working out how taking time out may enrich your day, and your life’s journey.
It can therefore be prayerful or playful, peaceful or purposeful; it is entirely up to you.
To medieval people Christian worship was the driving force in their lives.
The cathedral was the early embodiment of the City of God, of the celestial Jerusalem. The liturgy for consecrating churches informs this thought. Its piers and columns are symbolic of prophets and apostles, as at St. Denis in France where they bear the vault of which Christ is the crown.
The portal entrance admits the pilgrim, the penitent and the believer into Paradise. God is light and light gives beauty to all things.
Beauty is identified with brightness, which together with harmony and rhythm reflect images of God.
Like the mosaics of a Christian basilica, or the mural paintings of Romanesque churches, the stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals showed the congregation, who in the main could not read the written word, what they should believe.
Compared with many other medieval churches, relatively few changes have been made to the cathedral at Chartres since its consecration on October 24, 1260.
For a medieval pilgrim a cathedral with steeples was a beacon beckoning from afar. It was all about the place of peace where his soul would rest at the end of its journey.
The teachings of eminent theologians such as Gilbert de la Poree, Hugues de Saint-Victor, Robert Grosseteste and Abbot Suger said the house of God must be lit by the rays of the sun, as dazzlingly clear as Paradise so they would pass, as it were, through the gates of Paradise into the heavenly city itself.
Today, while we have evolved through many revolutions and the ages and have advanced in so many respects, even modern technology still does not provide all the answers we are seeking. The spiritual needs of our inner selves still require us to address and serve both our health and wellbeing.
Material comforts are simply not enough, because humans are still striving to push their boundaries further than ever before.
While not wanting to embrace the religious fervour of medieval man, modern man wants a better environment, to throw off rigid thinking and to find peace and harmony for the soul where substance and essence can become united as one and where we are at peace within our built and natural environment.
A labyrinth to be constructed in Centennial Park at Sydney most of all and symbolically, will for many people, help them towards finding as in life, the right path to follow as they embrace truth and fulfillment.
Then there is the distinct possibility they will also experience a total transformation and be at one within their spirit and soul.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012-2013
* Isiah 30:20 – Isaiah is the twenty-third book of the Bible and contains both prose and poetry, as well as hymns of praise.
**Cretan poet Epimenides, who lived in the sixth century before the Christ event
When a design history colleague and I were visiting Notre Dame Cathedral at Chartres in 2001 we were also lucky to meet and have a private tour with Malcolm Miller, the world class historian and instructor for thousands of students who visit the Cathedral. Since 1958 he has been teaching them to ‘read’ its messages visually.
His lively way of informing them how the dynamic geometry used in the architecture of a cathedral works is an amusing video anecdote you may wish to enjoy.