Sunday, May 24, 2009


More than one person to whom we mentioned our trip to Chartres said 'Isn't there a labyrinth there?' or similar. Labyrinths seem to be something people are aware of these days. Google the Chartres labyrinth, and you'll find all manner of sites and references, from academic specialists on mediaeval art and architecture, to marvellous and faithful replicas, like the ones at Grace Cathedral San Fransisco, to the wildest of New Age claims for the power of labyrinths in general and the Chartres one in particular.

Indeed, there has been a lot of dubious nonsense talked about Chartres in general, and not only in recent times: Black Madonnas, sacred geometry, druidic origins etc. I am wary of adding to it, and have been inclined to avoid it, largely because I didn't want my sceptical hackles to rise and spoil things for me. Pseudohistory annoys me even more than pseudoscience, mostly because I think it misses the point; experience of the numinous, the tranformational, the transcendant, even an inkling that a place is special and could possibly be instrumental in bringing about any of the former, don't need daft and spurious hypotheses and conspiracy theories to give them validity.

In truth, no one really knows much about the labyrinth, why it's there, what it represents. It may have been allegorical of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or something to be undertaken penitentially, perhaps on one's knees, or it may simply have been a kind of trademark flourish, a grace note, on the part of the masons who built the cathedral. Once there was a copper plaque in the centre of it with an image of Theseus and the Minotaur, but that was melted down to make Napoleonic rifles, leaving only the rivet holes.

Here's a plan of what it looks like. It's made from creamy gold limestone and a rich black marble from further afield. It was completed by the early 13th century, and has remained there unchanged ever since.

It is some 12m, 40 ft, across, and the path it contains is about 260m, 860 ft long. Any connection with the Cretan labyrinth is a false one; it isn't a maze, but a single path from entrance to centre, so you can't get lost in it.

In fact, most of the time you can't even see it, because it's covered in chairs, and those odd little low chairlike things, pries-dieux, that serve as kneelers in French churches (with the decline in church going, these odd items of furniture are often readily available at brocantes, Emmaus branches and similar; some friends of ours keep one or two around as occasional surfaces, impromptu magazine racks and the like...). You can see the centre of it if you know it's there.

The chairs aren't strictly necessary from a seating point of view, I'm sure of that. The number of services held which need that many places are relatively few, the part of the floor it occupies is the furthest from the altar, and the seats could be brought into commission when called for. Why obscure what is widely seen as one of the cathedral's most mysterious, appealing and interesting treasures, which so many visitors would like to see and experience? It may be, of course, for its own protection, the feet of too many people walking it might damage or erode it, but that seems doubtful.

However, on high days and holidays, they clear the chairs away, and allow people to see and walk it, though they bring out an imformation panel asserting the Christian authenticity of its meaning, and denying that it has any connection with paganism ancient or modern. The Friday we were there, a public holiday, was one such day. A number of people were quietly following its path, a few with what I thought were rather self-consciously prayerful and serene expressions and attitudes, many more were simply sitting and watching.

I had no doubt when I saw this that I wanted to give it a go. Happily, I'd read very little about its purported meaning and significance, and what walking it was supposed to do for you, so I was able to take it as I found it. I'm not going to come over all rapturous and epiphanic about it, it wasn't like that, but I'm glad I did it. I unslung the camera from round my neck - it somehow felt wrong to have it hanging there, poking out in front between me and the action - and put it away in my backpack, took a breath and started.

I suppose quite simply it induced a very direct sense of mindfulness. Concentration, distraction, sureness, a few wobbles, boredom and joy all came and went. Sometimes I had to make way for other people passing me, sometimes we acknowledged each other, sometimes not, sometimes I felt irritated by them, sometimes quite warmly towards them. After a time, at various points I thought to stop and look up and around me, to take in this window or that vista, to take stock of where I was. You don't really know when and whether you're anywhere near the centre until you get there; though you can seem at times, including right at the start, to be very near it, then the path will lead you off in the opposite direction, through wide arcs and sudden reverses. It sounds horribly glib and banal to say it's rather like life, but it's difficult to escape the thought.

And when you get to the heart of it, and stayed there a while, there's nothing to do but turn to and make your way back to where you started.

So where's the harm in that? Why the reluctance on the part of the church authorities to accept that people want to do this, people who might not be card-carrying Christians,* but who perceive that the labyrinth might have something to show them that a pilgrimage to Lourdes, a singalong of 'Un grand champ à moissoner' , or even paying one's respects to Our Lady of the Pillar, the North Porch or the Jesse Tree window might not be able to offer?

I have to say I have a passing sympathy with their point of view, I suppose. Having lived a short time in Totnes, I have some idea how crass, loud and intrusive so-called neo-pagans and their gnangnan, (thanks Setu for that wonderful word!) can be; rather as I have some sympathy with the 18th century clerics who dug up the labyrinths of Amiens, Reims, Auxerre and elsewhere, not for their soulless rationalist vandalism, but for their exasperation at the labyrinths being made a playground by noisy children and their games of tag (I also have a sympathy for the children, it must have been great fun...). When I want to be quiet and think, noisy kids and extroverts in groups, especially those spouting anodyne and tuneless nonsense, get on my nerves too. But I suspect (and this is, of course, only my subjective speculation, so pace any who may feel otherwise. I also know that many believing and observant religious people do not feel the same way...) the discomfort of the orthodox religionists around the labyrinth runs deeper than that.

The labyrinth throws one back on oneself. It is abstract and abstracting. It threatens to turn one inward, to find direction, grace, balance, truth if you will, on one's own within one's own consciousness. Doctrine, ritual, hierarchy cannot get a purchase there, the intervention of priest, book or word, is not required. The power of the church has not been able to appropriate it. Inasmuch as it evokes the Delphic exhortation 'Know thyself', it is indeed pagan.

So I reached the centre, stood a while, and made way for other people entering by stepping into one of the corolla of petals of the fleuron in the centre.

Because our B&B was quite central, and had secure parking, we left the car there almost all the time, walked everywhere, and kept Molly with us. This meant that when we wanted to go inside somewhere, the Cathedral, museums, galleries etc, where dogs weren't allowed or she'd have been a pain anyway, we had to split up, one of us minding her, either sitting and waiting and watching the world go by, or taking in the gardens or the market, or having an cup of coffee, or whatever, or sometimes one of us would stay back at our lodgings, reading or resting, while the other made a foray into town. Occasionally inconvenient, in general it worked out rather well, enabling each of us to to absorb and appreciate things in our own way, without reference or deference to the other, then to have the benefit of recounting and considering our impressions and feelings about them to one another afterwards, looking at photos etc. It also created an interesting dynamic, certain benches, cafés and other locations acquired an affectionate significance, and there were plenty of opportunities for joyful reunions, and, where cocker spaniels are concerned, you can't have too many joyful reunions. On this occasion, going into the Cathedral but not knowing the labyrinth was uncovered, I left Tom and Molly on the first block stone bench in front of the West Porch. As it was quite chilly and the morning was wearing on, I told Tom to go back to the B&B if he got fed up waiting, and I'd 'phone when I came out.

I started the outward path and undertook it more quickly and light-heartedly, enjoying the sensation of building up more speed round the wider arcs, and slightly careening into the turns with an occasional loss of footing. Then suddenly, I was looking straight down the homeward stretch, the last few unbroken yards of paving towards the exit, and my heart lifted with hope, as I ran down it, out of the west door and into the daylight. And they were still there waiting, and Tom wondered why I was standing at the top of the steps, among the queens and kings of Judah, grinning like an idiot. I hugged him and then Mol, and kept saying 'You're still here, you didn't go home without me!'


Tom walked it later, and we became rather labyrinth obsessed, and decided we'd rather like to take our own one home. We realised this was possibly somewhat naff and touristy, but that not to follow up something thatdrws you for fear of such judgement is cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. First we found this routed MDF disc of the motif, with a wooden pivot on the underside, which you navigate with ball bearings. Quite tricky!

Then I visited a tiny mosaic gallery in a small converted chapel in the lower town (I'll perhaps post a few pics of this later), and saw and fell in love with this mosaic one. I thought, if it's X euros or less, I'll buy it, and it turned out to be half X. It goes nicely, I think, with our red walls.

We love the labyrinth!


*Although many are and are still discouraged. Lauren Artress, from Grace Cathedral, an episcopalian minister, asked several times if a group from the Veriditas project could come to Chartres and study and walk the labyrinth, but received no response, and finally they came anyway and moved the chairs out of the way themselves.


Rosie said...

I have spent a few rainy afternoons in Chartres, working there with an English Theatre group. I adored the cathedral but never discovered the labyrinth. Your wonderful description has made me realise what I missed. Interesting too the idea that a labyrinth is in some way sufficient unto itself as a spiritual experience, and thereby a little threatening to the orthodox and heirarchical religious mind...

herhimnbryn said...

When young I became entranced by a labyrinth we found in Cornwall. Carved into the wall of an old mill. Only 6 inches or so, but one had to touch and follow the curving lines with a finger.

I completely understand how you felt walking the labyrinth and running out into the sunshine.

vicki johnson said...

lovely post, Lucy.
i want to go find the one h found in Cornwall.

i like the idea of tracing the pathways with one's finger...or even the ball bearings one. i am too self-conscious when walking one...even when alone, which i've done in my friend's garden. Hers is created out of stones and shells, some of which i have helped her collect...which makes the act of always looking down while moving both less and more. Perhaps i simply have not played enough with it yet.

We love symbols, don't we? An our own personal superstitions? At least we artists and writers prefer our personal ones, i think...although the embracing of "universal" ones keeps us from feeling too lonely, i suppose.

Zhoen said...


christopher said...

The Labyrinth

It is the long path
of stone on stone, luminuous
in the holy light
thrown off the candles
nearby, reflected by eyes
of those who walk paths
near my own. We curve
our way to the heart and back,
disciplined in our
wandering this once
and willing to ponder on
the presence of truth.

The Joined up Cook said...

Organised religion is all about control and since the labyrinth has pagan links and encourages thoughts outside conventional religion the church will avoid highlighting it.

To walk something that people have walked for centuries must be quite wonderful; it will guide you through the very steps that so many have taken over hundreds of years.

Far more intimate than just a general walk in a historical area that others have taken.

I bet you could almost imagine the mediaval peasant just ahead of you.

Agree with you re pseudohistory and the rest.

Lovely post.

I'll have to find out if any English cathedrals have one or something like it.

Anonymous said...

what a fascinating post lucy! and you even got your own take away version of the labyrinth! fun.

The Crow said...

Lovely post, Lucy.

Roderick Robinson said...

The word (phrase?) jumped out at me: prie-dieux. Bought one in Fulham, heavy as concrete, transported it to the French house where it occupied a spot just inside the front door accommodating Collins-Robert. For dictionaries must always be accessible. Also there was the pleasing suggestion of deconsecration about its new role.

marly said...

Of course you had to take your camera off. There are many people (think this started in the states as an African-American tradition in the South) who take off their watches when they enter church as a symbol of their intent to move from time to eternity in sacred space. Also, I think of the chief in William Bartram's "Travels" (have you read it?--you would love that book) who insists that the little compass tells lies in the forest. Machines in a labyrinth are like plastic in a garden: abomination!

Wasn't the Chartes labyrinth reputed to be copied from the one in Solomon's temple--via an intermediate one in the Hagia Sofia?

Glad you thought the arrival was lovely--hope you like what's inside as well!

andy said...

Whether the designer planned it this way or not, I rather like the symbolism implicit in the way the path leads tantalisingly close to the centre after just the first couple of turns, but then loses itself among myriad twists and turns; yet, when you seem as far away from your goal as you have ever been, back virtually where you started, just a couple more turns take you to the heart of the matter...

herhimnbryn said...

Lucy, you might be interested in this( how to draw a labyrinth)

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

I did use the camera in the cathedral, (but without the flash) but it seemed wrong here.

I can't believe BB, you bought a prie-dieu in fulham and carried it to France! Coals to Newcastle. I suppose they have to be heavy to avoid the weighty, elderly and arthritic faithful sliding about and coming a cropper when they set about praying!

Andy, yes indeed, I find it hard to believe that wasn't intentional...

Thanks for the link, HHB!

tristan said...

here's a nice picture from wikipedia

Elizabeth said...

As a Catholic, it drives me crazy to read (in comments) that "organized Religion is about control" UGH. The Catholic Faith is "about" salvation...and has included many ways of finding God, finding truth and finding peace.

Lucy, your description is lovely and your photos beautiful.
Pax Christi

Lucy said...

Tristan, that's a lovely photo. I tried to post it here as an added thing, but for some reason the html wouldn't go. Thanks anyway!

Elizabeth, lovely to hear from you. I have mixed feelings about religion, which I find it difficult to speak about directly because my words always seem to trap me, somehow. But I include many people of esablished faith among my friends and loved ones, and deeply respect many of their convictions and experiences, as well as sometimes envying them. As you say, there are many ways.

I do think perhaps there is a particular defensive and rather unimaginative mentality in the Catholic church in France, which has something to do with a number of historical factors, especially perhaps the separation of church and state at the beginning of the 20th century, and which is probably not to be found anywhere else. One of the consequences of this, I've found, is that churches are not cherished by the secular public as places of beauty, historical interest and spirituality, as they are, I feel, in the UK, where, of course, church and state are still in a relationship. In turn, the Church authorites here in France, I feel, often rather stubbornly refuse to welcome people who come for other reasons than confessed faith. Chartres cathedral is obviously rather the exception to this, but if I go into many churches here, I am often disappointed that the only literature I can find are standard issue pamphlets about the catechisme and the next Lourdes pilgrimage, and a poster exhorting one to give money to the priesthood, nothing usually about the history, architecture or art of that particular church, the story of its patron saint, or any of the things which to me constitute a very important part of its spiritual fabric.

However, I can see this too might have its positive side; another dear and practising friend said how refreshing it was to go into a small church in Paris after a stay in Italy, and find a simple place of prayer and tranquility rather than a noisy museum, as she felt many Italian churches were.

What a lot I've written, I wonder if you'll come back to read it!