Our Lady of the Beautiful Windows: Chartres
The labyrinth of Chartres cathedral is circular. Its diameter, at just under thirteen metres, equals the width of the nave from pillar to pillar, but the path to its center wriggles 261.5 metres, a good four-minute walk. The path is of white stone laid within black marble borders. It meanders in and out, left and right, through eleven concentric circles to the center where there once was a copper plaque depicting Theseus and the Minotaur.
One’s first impulse on seeing a labyrinth is to walk it. It looks like a bit of whimsy, a challenge, if not a daunting one. It would call for a certain concentration, and this, combined with all the righting and lefting, would doubtless still the mind, level out the pulse, and balance the hemispheres of the brain - all the benefits claimed by modern advocates of “labyrinth therapy.”
If only there weren’t two solid banks of pews overlaying the
Labyrinths were once a common feature in French cathedrals. (And not only French: years ago I took a picture of a small labyrinth traced on a pillar near the doors to the cathedral of Lucca, in Tuscany. It is identical to the one of Chartres.) But by the eighteenth century, their original purpose had been forgotten and they came to appear as nothing more than a trifling, archaic distraction from the serious business of worship. The labyrinth of Chartres is one of the few that was not pried up at that time…
A name commonly given to these labyrinths was “The Road to Jerusalem,” though a labyrinth seems an unlikely symbol for a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage, after all, tends to make a beeline for its destination, while a labyrinth takes the most tortuous route. The goal of a pilgrimage lies at the end of a road, but the end of a labyrinth is its center. And where, at the end of a pilgrimage, the pilgrim turns his footsteps home, the center of a labyrinth spells game over.
To perceive that the straight path of pilgrimage and the winding way of the labyrinth are in fact one, we must first ask what pilgrimage signifies. A time honored answer is that a pilgrim’s journey is a distillation of the journey of life, complete with all its riddles, doubts, hardships and temptations. Thus, even though a pilgrimage looks like a straight line on the map of the world (as life looks like a straight line on the map of time), spiritually it is a winding and uncertain way, liable to backtrack and turn from its goal even when that goal seems nearest.
Pilgrimage, moreover, although a journey out on the physical plane, is an inward journey on the spiritual, with the pilgrim’s true home in God as its destination. The Latin word peregrinus - which has come down to us as peregrino, pèlerin, pilgrim - originally meant an alien, a man without kin, friends or patrons: an outsider. For Saint Augustine, the Christian was a peregrinus, one who wanders the earth, feeling nowhere at home, because his true home is in heaven…
So the labyrinth turns out to be a fitting metaphor for the Christian vision of pilgrimage and life: a winding road of the spirit that ends in the center where the soul rests eternally. And note, too, that it is a journey with a certain outcome. Unlike a maze, the labyrinth of Chartres has no forking paths or misdirections. There is one true way. Only follow and you will reach your goal.
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See also: All the Good Pilgrims