Feasts & Seasons

The Labyrinth and the Paschal Mystery

September 11, 2007

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Labyrinth in Chartres CathedralThe famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral is a silent witness to a long-forgotten tradition. Art historians, theologians and liturgists, citing a lack of documentary evidence, have had little to say about the labyrinth and its use. A recent study by Craig Wright, The Maze and the Warrior: Symbols in Architecture, Theology, and Music (Harvard University Press, 2001), however, sheds new light on the topic, thanks to newly discovered documents that show an intimate connection between the labyrinth and the Easter liturgy.

The Myth of the Labyrinth and Liturgical Dance

Chora Church in IstanbulIn the ancient world, spring was heralded with festivals of sacred dance inspired by the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Labyrinths were built as stages for the serpentine dances. Christians continued the popular tradition, but supplied a new meaning to the ancient myth. The story of Theseus navigating the labyrinthine prison, slaying the Minotaur, and retracing his steps to freedom was replaced by the story of Christ’s descent among the dead, his victory over Satan, and the release of the souls of the just, symbolized by Adam and Eve. The mystery is magnificently recapitulated in the orthodox icon of Easter, the anastasis.

San Martino in LuccaOver time the labyrinth itself became a sacred symbol. Romans placed the image in doorways and on tombs; the image is found in early Christian churches, the earliest known being a fourth-century church in modern-day Algeria. Medieval scribes often illustrated liturgical calendars and tables used to calculate the date of Easter with the labyrinth. Then, over the span of a century, from the mid-twelfth to the mid-thirteenth, monumental stone labyrinths appeared in the cathedrals of Chartres, Amiens, Reims, Sens, and Auxerre.

Documents from these churches, unearthed by Wright, reveal that on the afternoon of Easter Sunday the canons of the cathedral, led by their dean, processed from the choir to the labyrinth where, hand-in-hand, they danced the path of the labyrinth to its center and back while singing the Easter hymn Victimae paschali laudes. There was another procession with song at vespers from the choir to the baptismal font and back by way of the labyrinth.

The Labyrinth and the Mystery of Baptism

Fra Angelico, Last JudgementFrom this, it is clear that the labyrinth and the liturgical dance associated with it were related to the tradition of baptism at Easter and the anniversary of baptism for the baptized. 1 Peter 3:18-22 relates Christ’s descent among the dead and sees in it “a figure of baptism.” According to the third-century Acts of St. John, on eve of his passion Christ taught his disciples a dance. And St. Gregory of Nazianzus envisions the last judgment as the day when all the elect will enter “the domain of all who joyfully dance the perpetual choral dance.” Our word “choral” derives, by way of Latin, from the Greek word “choreia,” the term for the labyrinth dances. A detail from Fra Angelico’s “Last Judgment” shows the elect being initiated into this dance.

The Easter dances and, in some cases, the labyrinths themselves did not survive the sixteenth century when the spirit of reform and a new Puritanism banished anything that appeared unseemly. Apparently, the dances got a little rowdy on occasion and brought the clergy into close proximity with women. Need we say more! As the knowledge of the Easter dances faded from collective memory, the idea developed that walking the labyrinth was a kind of pilgrimage and, in modern times, a journey of self discovery and an encounter with God.

The Labyrinth Today

Labyrinth at Resurrection Church in FloridaThe information related here suggests that historically, at least, the labyrinth should be understood as a symbol of Easter and more specifically, of the rites of initiation. It would be interesting to explore ways of recapturing a liturgical use for the labyrinth, perhaps with sacred dance. This information also suggests a baptismal focus for individuals who might walk the labyrinth as a way of uniting themselves with the paschal mystery and deepening their own baptismal covenant.

Resurrection Church in Destin, FloridaAt Resurrection Catholic Church in Destin, Florida, a church with which I was privileged to work, a replica of the Chartres labyrinth was placed on axis with a bronze crucifix outside the church, which serves as the gathering place for the blessing of palms and the lighting of the Easter fire, and the baptismal font and resurrection cross inside the church.

Ronald John Zawilla, Ph.D. is a liturgical design consultant in Chicago, IL.


Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly

+ Introduction
+ Part I:  The Early Christian Period: Crux Invicta, Crux Gemmata
+ Part II: The Early Christian Period: Christus Victor
+ Part III: The Medieval Period: Christus Mortuus

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