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The Mystery of the Great Labyrinth,
Chartres Cathedral


John James

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 11, No. 2. (Spring, 1977). © World Wisdom, Inc.

THE most famous European labyrinth is the great one set into the floor of Chartres cathedral measuring over 40' across.[1] It is one of many, for Matthews[2] lists twenty three in churches without including the many open-air labyrinths and mazes made of stones or cut into the turf of Ireland, Britain and Scandinavia. It is an extremely ancient device, as the story of the Cretan labyrinth shows. There was an Egyptian one at Hawara from about 1800 B.C., and if the idea hales from the Middle East it must be much older, for there is one at New Grange in Ireland dated seven centuries earlier.

The prelates of the Middle Ages placed them in prominent positions in their churches as testaments to their faith, but it took the eighteenth century to recognise their essentially pagan origins—for they destroyed many of them: at Reims, Sens, Arras, Auxerre and St. Omer, and in the next century at Amiens and Caen. The brass plaque in the centre of the Chartrain labyrinth was pulled up at the same time.

Yet would the Middle Ages have used a pagan motif without ensuring that it had been totally pervaded by a Christian message? And would they have given it such prominence and placed it in such an important position in the centre of the nave if its Christian qualities had not superceded its pagan ones? The material in this article convinces me that, after the sacred relics and the cathedral building itself, the labyrinth was the most meaningful if esoteric cult-object of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Its sacred nature is indicated by the names given it throughout Europe—'Chemin de Jérusalem', 'Iherusalem', and 'City of God'. The one in San Savino, Piacenza, is inscribed

The labyrinth represents the world we live in, broad at the entrance, but narrow at the exit, so he who is ensnared by the joys of the world and weighed down by its vices, can regain the doctrines of life only with difficulty.

It is not a maze, but a single way. It is not a mindless trick but an ordered track. The design used at Chartres was repeated in many other places including Lucca, and the Mappa Mundi in Hereford; and with embellishments at Amiens and St. Quentin. This is why the Chartres labyrinth is so important—it is a canonic arrangement approved by the clergy, repeatedly used from one end of Europe to the other, and placed in conspicuous places in their churches.

The most important ingredients are: eleven concentric rings split into four parts, a path which leads from the outside to the inside and passes once over every track, and a picture or an inscription.

Equally basic is the arrangement of the pathway. It always enters on the left of the centre-line, and passes straight into the seventh ring counting from the inside; and it exits into the centre from the fifth. This order is standard, as is the arrangement of tracks in between.

If you follow the path with your finger you will see that we first traverse the inside five rings on the left half, and then those on the right. The path continues right across the top of the sixth to join the remaining outer five circles, first passed on the left and then on the right. A clear and consistent pattern. There is a symmetry from one side to the other, and from the inside to the outside.

In the centre of the Chartres labyrinth there had once been fixed a bronze plaque—taken up and melted for cannon during the Revolution—on which was incised a most un-Christian tableau of Theseus killing the Minotaur with Ariadne holding the thread which was to show him the way home.[3] This motif was not unusual either—Amien's was called the House of Dedalus, while Lucca and Cremona both depicted Theseus in the centre and many of the others were popularly known as 'Dardale'.

In the Greek myths Daedalus was the legendary architect who invented many builder's tools, built a flying machine, and also designed the Cretan labyrinth. He is the archetypal mason, and was a byword for the master's craft. Can we therefore say that these many labyrinths were placed just to celebrate the master architects? Certainly the ones in Reims and Amiens commemorated the names of the building's masters, yet the other names given the labyrinths —of Jerusalem and so on—show that this was not their only message.

We must not forget that the clergy at Chartres were famous for their Platonic scholarship, and ranked, in the century before the cathedral was rebuilt, as the foremost centre in Europe for teaching these views. Their Way was the Gnostic one through knowledge rather than through faith. Their kindred order in the Moslem world, the Sufis, wrote

Beware, for love alone without knowledge, remains unfocused, unaimed, undirected. The consequences of such a love is pointless, leading to a confused state of perpetual 'Hallelujah' comparable to the village idiot's perpetual good humour. Through the medicine of knowledge joy is anchored so that love is directed to the Subject of all love.[4]

Hence we should expect that in Chartres of all places, every object in the cathedral should have the same purpose—to help the pilgrim find the correct and proven path, to give him Ariadne's thread to lead him through life's maze.

The labyrinth is composed of a number of symbols which strike the profoundest chords of our subconscious—the circle, the cross and the spiral. Through these crucial forms the labyrinth is linked to man's inner world, to the Jungian collective unconscious, and to the sacred motifs of most cultures.

In Asia the mandala is an aid to meditation, and in Sanscrit the word simply means a circle. The circle is the primary form of the labyrinth, containing the eleven rings, the centre with its six petals, and the surrounding 'cogs'. The basic form is a small circle at the centre with a larger one outside joined by crossed hairs as in a gun-sight.

The circle is the most perfect geometric figure, being the same at the beginning as at the end, as with alpha and omega. The four arms of the cross are like the square, the symbol for reality which represents the four points of the compass just as the square represents the enclosure of the city walls. We say we stand "foursquare" by something, and if we are upset we say we are "disoriented". When we mentally place ourselves at the centre of the cross we feel we know where we are, for with arms outstretched we can face the fourways and can locate ourselves—we are "centred".

The "city" of the pilgrim's search, the mystical Jerusalem, has four walls and four gates facing the four cardinal points for the reason that in our deepest subconscious its four-ness tells us that we are "there". Similarly the altar, where we know God, is placed on four legs, while His truth is contained in four Gospels. Paradise likewise has four walls through which issue four rivers, and the life of Christ—the Saviour—has four stages: conception, birth, crucifixion and resurrection.

The flowing of water and the gates are both feminine things, as is the enclosure formed by its walls—or so the psychologists tell us. It is the dark and the warm, the haven of the unconscious where, says the alchemical text known as the Ars Chemica, "God lies within the bosom of the city"—the Mother city; in the same way as Christ sits on Mary's lap in contemporary sculpture.

To combine the cross with the circle "represents the synthesis of the four elements which are forever tending to fall apart".[5] It unites the circle of wholeness and of spirit with the square of matter and security. Jung goes on to write

The squaring of the circle is one of the many archetypal motifs which form the basic pattern of our dreams and fantasies. It could even be called the archetype of wholeness. Because of this significance, the 'quarternity of one' is a schema for all images of God, as depicted in the visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Enoch.

In Chartres this beautiful symbol is a little more complex for there is also a central circle held in suspension by the arms of the cross. The centre is approachable only with great difficulty, as with the Garden of Eden which is separated from the rest of the world by a very great space—sometimes water and sometimes a ring of fire. In the romances Gerwain has to approach an island to find his true love. Death rows one over the water, and as in the Cretan myth, Theseus the sun hero has to come to an island to face his moment of truth. These are the images of the unconscious—like the tales of cities "surrounded by strong, impregnable fortifications and by deep, dark, impassable ditches"—which make our blood run quicker for they are so profoundly meaningful.

The central circle in the labyrinth is the Rose, which is the Lamb described in Revelation as being in the centre of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Dante's Christ resides with the great Rose in the centre of Paradise. The rose garden is one of the favourite allegorical devices used by alchemists and courtly painters alike. Mary was called the "Rosa Mystica" in the litany of Loreto.

The rose is the centre which is the calyx: it is the centre of the flower which is also the symbol for the opening to the vagina. This calyx is called the "seat and birthplace of God". It is like the Padme of the Great Mantra, which means the lotus.

In searching for our Jerusalem and the peace it brings we try to sunder our mental chains to reach Christ in the garden, Buddha on the lotus, Rhea in the depths of the cave. This difficult journey underlies the symbolism of the labyrinth, and being a Way it has a path—and Bunyan drew it in the Pilgrim's Progress: it is a spiral.

A spiral was carved by the entry into one of the burial mounds at New Grange, Ireland. People still call the mound the spiral castle, and while revolving their finger in explanation they say "our king has gone to the spiral castle"—meaning that he is dead.

Like the snake the spiral typifies death. But all death patterns reflect the dream within it of cheating death and being reborn. Hence it is at the same time one of the greatest life symbols. The snake also has a beneficent side—that of wisdom. The two images are conjoined in the Gnostic way which shows how we can be reborn through knowledge (still current in the doctor's caduceus which has two snakes spiralling round a rod). The most long-lived myths of heroes and sun-kings are those in which the inevitability of death is broken—Theseus, Dedalus in flight and Christ are only three of a multitude. The labyrinth combines the symbols of the spiral, the cross and the circle into a single life-promising format—connoting rebirth, certainty and peace, perfect peace.

The myth of the Minotaur enshrined at its centre is one of the most important death-defying cycles known. It was originally a moon myth: sacrifices are held every nine years; this is the third occasion; there are seven boys and seven girls—all moon numbers and so belonging to the Goddess. The Minotaur is the symbol of our uncontrollable mental forces. Naked, Theseus kills the Minotaur using the double headed axe called by the Greeks the labrus. Without the help of Ariadne he would have failed in the end, as for him the labyrinth was a maze—an entangling confusion symbolic of the unconscious. Only Ariadne's thread can show him the way home (Om) after he has killed the forces of the ego. Significantly Ariadne is the daughter of the king who ordered the sacrifice; and is she not also Arianna, or Anna, or Diana—the mother Goddess herself?

To reinforce this important feminine aspect, remember that Daedalus who built the labyrinth was guided by Pasiphaë the moon goddess, who was also the mother and lover of Minos, and so the mother of Ariadne. Confusing? No, just different aspects of the same truth. By guidance (be it thread or knowledge) the goddess (the virgins Ariadne or Mary) shows him (Theseus the pilgrim, or Daedalus the master mason) how to reach into the unconscious to find enlightenment.

In Chartres the 'feeling' of the myth remains unaltered though the pagan elements have been allegoricalised into Christian forms. Theseus becomes the Pilgrim, the Minotaur his sins, and Ariadne remains the Virgin whose intercession helps the Pilgrim find his way. Mary, by her bodily Assumption to which the cathedral is dedicated, and by her patronage of the seven Liberal Arts which was the basis of the Chapter's Gnostic beliefs, shows man the way through the labyrinth of life's temptations. It is a perfect pilgrimage myth and, as Jung explains, symbolises the liberating aspects of the mother image rather than the devouring aspects, and thus frees man from his anima. Rightly did the Church engrave these pagan figures into the central bronze plaque of the labyrinth.

The arrangement of the path to the centre which passes through the left hand side before the right, reflects an equally deep level of imagery. The Arabs, the ancient Egyptians and the Indians eat with their right hands reserving the right hand for all honourable purposes, and left for actions which, though necessary, are unclean. In the Talmud the Prince of Demons sits on God's left. His name is Samael sharing the same root as se'mol meaning left.

Our 'left' comes from the Old English lef or weak, and the Anglo-Saxon lyft broken. The Latin sinistra gives our sinister, and the French gauche our gauche and gawky. The Portuguese canhoto means left, and also mischievous. This is a universally accepted division; the Christian ritual is predominantly right handed (bread and wine administered in the right hand and from left to right, and is taken by the communicant in his right hand), Tibetan prayer wheels turn to the right, as do clocks, dancing Dervishes and Moslem pilgrims circling the Ka'aba. So these distinctions are as universal in our subconscious as are the symbols of the cross, the circle and the spiral.

In the iconography of the transept portal sculpture at Chartres the lesser truths are on the left or north side—including the past, the Old Testament and the Church—while the fundamental truths of the New Testament, the future and the Last Judgment are on the south/right side. Similarly in the sculpture of the three western doors the left concerns Christ's Resurrection where the gross becomes spirit while the right shows His Incarnation, or God's appearance on earth, and the relationship between Him and His Mother to whom the cathedral is pledged.

Hence, in the path around the labyrinth, we travel around the left inside circles before the right, and the left outer ones before the right. Similarly the penetential movement around the cathedral was clockwise. Always the movement is the same, and Jung saw this as the positive action of the psyche into a deeper understanding of its unconscious. It is a progress from the lesser to the greater, and from the mundane to the spiritual, and may be followed in the drawing of the labyrinth in the figure below. This suggests that the meaning of the labyrinth may be found in the sequence of its paths, from the outside to the centre. It also suggests that different meanings are attached to the inner than to the outer five circles, for each is treated separately; and that therefore the central circle must have a special significance.

The left or north door of the cathedral is concerned with Knowledge, while the south is concerned with Understanding.[6] First to know, and then to realise—this is the Gnostic way in a nutshell. The Chartres labyrinth was known as the 'Chemin de Jerusalem' and as the 'lieue' or the league—though I am inclined to think that this may be a pilgrim's interpretation of the more appropriate title of 'lieu', the place.[7] If so, the labyrinth is the path to the place, the home; to sainthood or Nirvana via a knowledge of the things of the left and then of the right, followed by an understanding of both left and right aspects. In a broad way this seems to be the meaning of the inner and outer bands of five—though I shall be more detailed later.

The word 'Labyrinth' according to Graves comes from the pre-Greek work labrus which means a thing to be held, and in particular the double-headed axe. The sacrificial bull was killed with the labrus. The word has the same root as the latin lapis, ex the Greek la'as meaning stone or gem. It was used by the medieval alchemists to name the most important object of their search—the lapis philosophorum. There are aspects of these meanings held in common, and one link seems to be through the axe to a far more ancient symbol, which is certainly as old as Catal Hüyük eight thousand years ago.

Zeus holds in his hand a thunderbolt, or so it was called and drawn in nineteenth century pictures. But the Greeks showed him holding something which sometimes looked like a dumbell, and even like the labrus.

The word for it is keraunos, which is not the common word for thunder or lightening. The root may be kera to destroy, as Zeus used his powers as a sky god to annihilate his enemies—thought it could equally be related to ceremics (firing?), the cornea of the eye (centre?) or to the horn.

Indian and Tibetan mystics have a symbol called the dorjé, representing the perfect state where all the contradictions are united —masculine and feminine, right and wrong, yin and yang.

This is the centre of the Hridayama around which all things move. Here the world of illusion (the so-called real world) vanishes and all energy is gathered together into its initial state. Is this symbol related to the Zeus thunderbolt?

This point of perfect rest is called by the Chinese alchemists the 'Diamond Body', and in Hindu the 'Diamond Thunderbolt'. Thunderbolt? The diamond is the hardest stone and cuts all others, yet its transluscence is mobile, quick. It is full of light, yet solid—a symbol of durability; whereas the thunderbolt is the light and sound of heaven, the power without substance and the clap which awoke the universe. Here we have a host of interrelated connections: diamond, lapis, thunderbolt, axe and labyrinth.

Let us approach the problem in another way. Though we have been taught to regard alchemy as primitive chemistry, from the twelfth century it was considered to be the study of the relationship between man and the cosmos. They believed that the processes man witnesses in heaven and on earth manifest the will of the Creator, and if correctly understood would yield the key to his intentions. The transmutation of base metals into gold was an esoteric symbol for their main objective, the transmutation of the soul. Like the Gnostic teachers of Chartres the alchemists sought God through knowledge. Mary Attwood, the famous nineteenth century alchemist, wrote that "Alchemy is philosophy, it is the philosophy, the finding of the Sophia of the mind."

The word itself is Arabic, and though the Europeans could have derived their knowledge of alchemy from the same Greek sources as the Arabs (the Minotaur was Cretan) it is probable that it all came from the Moslems, perhaps with Constantine of Africa, a Baghdad trained Moslem who died a monk in Italy in 1087. The first translators were Robert of Chester and Gerard of Cremona working in the 1140's half a century before the Chartres labyrinth.

Now, when Royalty is crowned the king holds the orb, which is divided across the centre (see drawing A on page 100). Today it stands for dominion over the earth, but it used to mean more than this.

Similar signs are used for gold (Drawing B), salt (C), garnet (D), Venus (E) and for the earth (F).

But the orb is the sign for cinnabar, the most important ore in alchemy consisting of mercury and sulphur which Gerber implies are to be seen as symbols rather than as real. Pliny called it 'dragon's blood' and in the Middle Ages it was linked with the Uroboros dragon, a snake which consumes itself, and was the symbol of death and knowledge, of perfection and of power. It is circular, and consumes itself only to be reborn, and hence has much in common with the labyrinth.

In the symbol of the orb lie all the meanings attached to cinnabar and to the uroboros, with the circle of completeness and the cross/square of the lapis. It is a symbol of unity—for the dragon had three ears and four feet (which is the same union of spirit and matter found in the serpent of the Kundalini which turns 3½ times before ascending the spinal chord). It is the union of three and four, which like that of the circle and the cross is the point of rest between the opposites.

The sixteenth century mystic, Jakob Bohme, described the old traditions relating to the Flash of Thunderbolt which had generated the powers from which came the Creation. He wrote:

Here arises the Spirit in the Essence, and it stands thus (Drawing G included in Drawing 1 below).
If thou hast here understanding thou needst ask no more; it is Eternity and Time, God in Love and Anger, also Heaven and Hell

…which is precisely the image of the dorjé:

The lower part, which is marked thus (Drawing H) is the First Principle, and is the Eternal Nature in Anger, viz. the Kingdom of Darkness dwelling in itself; and the upper part with this figure (Drawing I) is the Salniter

and the Source Spirit of God, and the Word.


As with the other analogous concepts the Salniter stands for the Prime Matter in its beneficent aspect, and was considered to be the mother and cause of all the metals and salts, and hence a first cause like the lapis philosophorum. It is from Salt and Nitri, or saltpetre; and as gunpowder is linked with Zeus's thunderbolt—a thing of destruction.

These two parts of the orb form a duality which is central to the idea of the dorjé, and like the Hu to be discussed later. Bohme draws his own version in his "Questions concerning the Soul" as the Zeus dumbell again (see Drawing J). Bohme is transcribing an ancient tradition in which the dorjé/dumbell/orb represents the combination of body and soul in what Jung calls "the symbol for the creative union of opposites, a uniting symbol in the literal sense".[8] Being also the form of the labyrinth these other devices share the same basic ideas of peace, enlightenment and salvation.

In the east the dorjé is unthinkable without the saint who has achieved what it stands for. Man and state are inseparable. In mediaeval alchemy the lapis is always found together with the homo altus, the Perfect Man, which they naturally equated with Christ. The essential resemblance to eastern ideas remains.

Thus the squared circle of the labyrinth stands for much the same idea as the dorjé, the lapis and the Spirit in the Essence—which is the union of opposites. It is drawn as a path, so it is the way man must travel if he is to find that 'still, calm centre'. Lapis is stone, as in pietra, or Pierre. Christ spoke to Peter—"On thee shall I build my church"—on rock which is the foundation, a place here called Jerusalem. Surely it is not unimportant in the history of ideas that in the early centuries the main threat to Christianity came from Mithras whose god came out of a rock, in the way that Christ disappeared into one at the end.

In psychoanalysis Jung found that when his patients were beginning to be cured their drawings had certain elements in common, even though they knew nothing of these ancient myths and symbols. This convalescent or emerging stage would often be expressed as a snake arranged in a clockwise spiral moving towards a square at the centre. The snake is the unconscious, the square is the diamond/lapis which is the new self. Jung's interpretation was that these symbols represented the movement of the personality towards a new state, and therefore to a rebirth. This is the image of the labyrinth.

In Mediaeval drawings the square in the centre is Mercurius (sometimes equated with the Salniter, and called the Square and the Circle) whom the alchemists called the "mediator making peace between the enemies or elements": which is the unifier of opposites again. Mercury was Wisdom or Sophia, which brings us back to the beginning—Holy Wisdom and the snake, Mary as the "Throne of the Almighty" and patron of learning, the Gnostic idea that through her (or through knowledge if you prefer) you can be saved, or reborn. Hence the feminine aspects, and Ariadne with her thread. This common fund of symbolic language, repeated in so many ways across the globe, shows that man's path to God is essentially the same in all cultures.

The labyrinth therefore represents the knowledge necessary to arrive at the 'centre'. The Chartrain path passes through eleven circles. Eleven is a rather non-Christian number, though Christ lived for 33 years—eleven times the Trinity. We could argue that ten is the most perfect number and that one is the All—so that eleven is the perfection of God. But this is a bit superficial in such a meaningful work. Lasterie quotes a fourth century labyrinth with the inscription 'Sancta Ecclesia' whose number by gematria would be 110.[9] But this will not do either, for most of the labyrinths at that time had seven rings, not eleven.[10]

In classical times scholars like Plato and Macrobius arranged the universe into ten circles—the five planets plus the sun and moon, the fixed stars, the Primum Mobile which give the stars their motion, and the Empyreum or Rose of Paradise which is the abode of God and his saints. Dante probably represented the mediaeval version when he separated God from his saints—which would have given eleven zones—but then he also added a twelfth, a ring of fire.

However, when Dante's eleven rings are arranged around the labyrinth the order of the tracks is not meaningful. If the eleven rings are Plato's ten plus one for God what is at the centre? If the eleven are Dante's with God at the centre, why do we enter into Jupiter and exit from the sun? They make no sense. Crichlow would place the earth at the centre, putting the entry into Saturn which is much more meaningful; but why should the pilgrim finish his journey at the beginning? One of his students, Jane Carrol, drew a most beautiful diagram for this arrangement which splendidly illustrates the labyrinth's rigorous symmetry, but without explaining its logic.[11]

The only satisfactory reason I can find for the use of eleven circles comes from outside Christian areas. In early Hindu numerology the most important shrines had eleven roofs, as in Bali today. The Koran lists the 99 most beautiful names for God (32 x 11): the highest is the un-namable, called the 'State of Blindness'. It is the Creative Principle itself, in which God is undifferentiated, pure and formless: where he is the One = 1. The next highest state is the Hu. It is the first exhalation, the primordial outflow of the breath of the One when He first sees Himself as both object and subject. It is the first division into aspects before He continues to the definition of archetypes, then of matter, and so on until the whole of creation has become manifest.

This state of Hu is as high as man can reach in his quest. He cannot become God, but can approach the Rose thus far. Hu is the most intimate name for God in Moslem prayers, and in the mantras is repeated eleven times. The flu is the unity of God divided for the first time, and as the first duality is one + one, usually drawn as two strokes one behind the other so it is still seen as one, but known as one/one, or eleven. Another dorjé.

The Sufis say that the Hu can only come to life through knowledge, and that God "loved to be known". Here is the link between the Moslem Sufi teaching, the Alchemists, and the Gnostic Christians —all believed that to find the Way we need wisdom.[12] In Compostella near Moslem Spain the side arches to the Portio della Gloria have eleven figures carved in rows: one has eight crowned men plus Adam, Eve and Christ, while the other has eleven patriarchs seated behind a massive rope suggestive of Ariadne's thread. An undocumented-tradition states that this arch represents the Jewish concept of life as it flourished before Christ from the book of Enoch. Muhammed also referred back to this tradition.

Enoch and Elija were both raised to Heaven without death—the only two to be so. They are the two 'witnesses' in Revelation II, and the two extra figures on the Chartres western central lintel. They represent the first duality, and Islamic tradition places both in the sphere of the sun in the same way as Dante places Gemini at the entrance to Heaven. By locating the entry in the constellation of the Twins, Dante repeats the idea of the Hu and the dorjé: that the way into Paradise lies through the twins/gateway/duality which is the centre between the opposites. The path of the labyrinth is therefore the eleven circles leading to the eleventh state, that of the Hu, the closest man may come to the sight of the Glory.

These eleven with the centre make twelve, and twelve is the number of completeness: the totality of the year, the full extent of Israel, and so on. Paths plus centre therefore represent all that is, in heaven and on earth. The cross within it reinforces this, being the four directions which encompass the earth, the four Gospels which contain the whole of Christ's message, and the four rivers of Paradise which symbolise the labyrinth's aim.

What then of the path? Why is this particular track so important that it was repeated again and again? Admittedly its symmetry is very beautiful and would have been appreciated for that alone. But cleverness is not enough. Thinkers like Thierry of Chartres and John of Salisbury would have looked for meaning too.

In Piacenza the labyrinth is set into a mosaic floor, and most of the space is taken up with the signs of the Zodiac. In Chartres the Zodiac is represented more often than any other subject except the essential scenes of Christ's Nativity and Death. The esoteric meanings given to the signs were the closest Christian equivalent to the teachings of the Koran about the Creation and the Redemption of Man. They follow the classic pattern of Evolution-Involution with the five steps in which God created the Universe followed by seven in which man finds his way back to Him.

This is not what we see in the Zodiac today, and if today's interpretation were all there was to it there would be no reason for the Church to have used it so often. The esoteric interpretation has been discussed elsewhere,[13] but the essentials are that Aries to Leo covers the Creation of life and matter, Virgo is the creation of Man, and Libra is man in essence, his potential and his powers, including ego.

Scorpio is man's notion of himself, his attachment to matter and self. It is the point of choice where the wrong decision will bring spiritual death. The last four signs depict the way back to God through understanding and spiritual consciousness, ending in Pisces whose sign is not unlike the dorjé/labrus itself.

Aries is set a little apart from the others as the unformed flux of primal energy, preceding even the first breath of God, the Hu. Aries represents the ultimate whole. Only by placing Aries in the centre of the labyrinth does the order of the paths have meaning. The innermost ring is therefore Taurus and the outermost is Pisces. (This arrangement is shown in the following drawing).


Hence the story of the labyrinth is this: the pilgrim begins by entering into Scorpio where he makes a first 'decision for Christ', as the modern evangalists will have it. He then passes through Libra on the left which is his ego/essence and which he must understand to some extent before he can appreciate the rest.

The next series is Taurus to Leo: which is the study of the Creation of the Universe by God, and the genesis of our world as knowledge. He traverses this series three times, once on the left as a learning process followed by the reverse order in the east where, facing the altar, he sees the Creation with the help of Christ. Lastly he returns from Taurus to Leo on the right restudying the past with new eyes and thereby understanding it.

The first pass on the left is like the message in the north doors of the cathedral, while the second pass on the east is influenced by the theological fundamentals illustrated in the western doors, and the third culminates in the understanding this knowledge gives him of God's purpose, as set out in the south door.[14] The message is that knowledge with guidance gives understanding.

For the second time he enters into Libra, passing across the full half circle on the eastern or top side. The pilgrim now reappraises himself in relation to Christ and the Church, and just as this path lies symmetrically across the axis of the cathedral, so the pilgrim can now see his ego in a balanced way.

From this firm position he follows through the five circles which lead him back to God through the same three-fold manner as he followed in the Creation. At the end he moves from Pisces/sainthood back to the right hand quarter of Libra through which he passes for the last time, throwing off his ego. In innocence he enters Virgo which is both God's concept of man and the Virgin Mother herself. The Virgin sat on God's right hand so that she could intercede for man, who therefore passes through her into Paradise. It includes the powerful and beautiful image of reentering the womb to be purified and reborn. The spiral of death culminates in the resurrection.

The return lies alongside the entry, showing that man had it in him from the beginning, only he turned to the left hand path, not to the right.[15] Essentially the arrangement works like a mneumonic, with the signposts which mark the Way. It is a fecund symbol encompassing the entire medieval world view with the deepest ambit of the devout.

The Way culminates in the First Strength of Aries seen as the Creative Principle surrounded by a six-petalled rose, and containing the repeat message of Ariadne/Mary giving the pilgrim/Theseus the thread/knowledge to conquor his desires and attachments, the Minotaur.

The geometry used to set out the centre epitomises Christ the Saviour who welcomes the successful pilgrim. The six petals reflect the perfect six-sided figure and the first Perfect number[16] set in the form of the Rose of Paradise whose calyx contains the Godhead. But unlike the perfect figure which is normally closed with no point of entry, the centre of the labyrinth has been eased open to let us in.

Crichlow has suggested that the geometry of the centre of the maze is based on a thirteen pointed star—the perfection of twelve plus one. The most ancient myths relate the important conspiracy of twelve plus one—as in Solomon and his twelve officers, Moses and the leaders of the twelve tribes, Romulus and twelve lectors, King Arthur and his dozen or two dozen knights, and today the judge and the jurymen. Thirteen is the exact and historically proven number of the witches coven, and let us not forget Hercules, Jason and Christ himself. Its antiquity is attested by a Neolithic grave in Granada of a dozen human skeletons sitting in a circle around a central skeleton dressed in leather.

Twelve has been the number of completeness at least since Sumerian times, for twelve months is the full cycle of the year whose twelve signs encompass the whole of human experience. It is closed and perfect in itself.[17] But for the purposes of the labyrinth it must be opened to allow the traveller to enter. Through Christ we gain entry into Paradise, hitherto reserved as an exclusive Club, for no human joined the gods on Mount Olympus. Through Christ and Mary we gain entry into Paradise and to the charmed Rose itself.

It is an amazing experience to walk around the path of the labyrinth with many other people, to be aware of the changing rhythms of the circles, and of the rest of the world moving in their own place on the way. Afterwards we measured the path very carefully, and from the cogs around the outside to the edge of the Rose the way measures 261.55 metres. This is exactly 740 Pes Manualis, which is the measure of the master mason who designed the labyrinth.[18] The labyrinth has four quarters, so the length of each quarter of the way spells "Santa Maria Assunta"—which is precisely the dedication of the cathedral.[19] The pilgrim truly passes along Ariadne's thread to reach Paradise.

If this was the sole basis for the design of the labyrinth, it would be amazing enough. But the medieval masters and church scholars loved to heap meaning on to meaning, increasing the mystery until concepts tumbled over one another whichever way you looked.[20] Half of 740 plus one (an allowable addition in numerology as it represents the All) spells "Pater, Filius et Sanctus Spiritus"! This number also recalls the important 37: the Western Rose window was designed by the same master and has 37 openings, and was surrounded by 74 large acanthus leaves.[21]

The cogs around the outside of the labyrinth have puzzled many people, for there are 112 of them, plus two halves at the entry. The circumference of the large circle taken through their centres measures 114 Pes Manualis, or one per cog.[22] The eighth century Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan divided the four elementary qualities (earth, air, fire and water) into four degrees with seven subdivisions giving a total of 112 positions which between them explained all materials, liquids and gasses found in manifest creation.

112 is also the number of years the moon takes to repeat its Metonic cycle six times, and this is the cycle which determines the date for Easter. Looking back on the Middle Ages from the twentieth century we must not forget that numbers provided them with the clues to God's intentions in the way the microscope or the computer does to us. Saint Augustine wrote that God created the earth in "measure, number and weight", and the Bishop of Auxerre who had been a student at Chartres just before the labyrinth was built, wrote that

number binds all things . . . rules the world, orders the globe, moving the stars, tying together the elements and marrying souls to bodies, earth to heaven, the celestial to the transitory.[23]

So, let us continue with number for a moment. The entry being to the left of the centre there are 55 cogs on the one side and 57 on the other, spelling "Ecclesia" on the left and "Domine" on the right, while the whole including the two halves which add one, spell "Christus" and "Maria Mater Dei".[24] The labyrinth has 31 curved tracks and 4 straight ones, and 35 spells the initials "BVM" which stands for the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Latin of course. There are 28 half-round changes of direction and six quarters—28 is the number of Anna the mother of Mary whose statue appears in the north porch, and 6 and 28 are the first two Perfect Numbers. Together they add up to 34 which is one off "BVM"—35—and "MV"—33—which is Maria Virgo. Half of 34 is seventeen which is the letter "R" standing for the Resurrection.

Twice 35 is 70, which spells "Jesus".
Thrice is 105, which is appropriately "Trinitas" and Four times is 140, or "Cristos Est".

Geometry set the meanings for architecture as did number, which is why the Chartre Chapter placed Number and Geometry at the top of the arch over Mary on the western doors. In trying to discover the original geometry I re-examined Crichlow's suggestion that the central circle had been divided into thirteen equal parts. If measured through the centre of the petals there should be two parts for each petal and one for the entry, but calculations from the measurements show that this is not so.[25] The difference is about ½". There is no way around this problem—if the petals had been arranged from the lines of a thirteen pointed star the idealized geometry would have to fit the average measurements more exactly than they do. So we must seek elsewhere for a solution to the petal's geometry.


The diameter of the petals including the bands around them is the same as the distance from their centres to the middle of the labyrinth. (See Diagram 1). But we all know that if we were to draw a circle, and around that draw another six of the same size, they would all touch one another, forming a closed figure without an opening for the pathway.

Yet there is an opening—so how did they rearrange this perfect figure to allow for it? The clue lies in the actual dimensions. The six surrounding circles were moved around the arc of the central one without encroaching on it. They were allowed to overlap one another by 70.7mm—one fifth of the Pes Manualisleaving a gap at the entry precisely the width of each of the eleven circles.


The Rose has been opened by five of those fifths, or one Pes, in a process which I find much more meaningful than the thirteen sided figure, for it represents Christ easing aside the perfection of Paradise to let us in.[26] Further, the width of the eleven circles measures precisely three times the radius of the core, while the radius of the circles forming the petals is just one third of that, so the pattern is of an overall geometry based on threes and sixes. (As shown in Diagram II, page 110).

Unlike today, every step in designing a mediaeval building had to be made with geometry, and each of the figures and steps used had specific meanings appropriate to the building's use. The first step in setting out the work set the tone for what was to follow. So far we have only looked at the internal geometry, but not at the first act from which the rest was woven.


There are three circles around the perimeter, (as shown in Diagram III), each stemming from an important source, and each adding its meaning to the whole. By designing each step in three, and by using three different circles to 'complicate' the perimeter, a great richness has been added to the whole.

The outermost one 'A' is invisible, for it passes through the centres of the circles of the cogs. It measures 36 Pes Manualis—the number of the BVM plus one. Each cog in the circle measures 3/4 of this foot, so that the diameter of 'A' is 48 of these units, while the overall imaginary circle 'B' measures 49 of them. 48 spells "INRI" while 49, as the important seven sevens, spells "IXS".[27]

The second circle 'C' marks the actual outer circumference which cuts through the 114 small circles, and makes their cog-like shape. Its diameter is one tenth of the overall internal length of the cathedral from the western doors to the eastern chapel.[28] The actual error is so slight that this must have been the master's intention: the labyrinth was not only a symbol for the Way, but was also a model of the cathedral itself. The cathedral represents the image of Jerusalem on earth, and in the microcosm of the labyrinth is the expression of the church's role in guiding men along their journey.

The last circle 'D' is derived from the crossing at the centre of the cathedral. In the first plan prepared by the same master who built the labyrinth, the crossing had measured 56' x 48', spelling the titulars for Jesus and Mary. Thus the central space of the church represented Christ the son with the Virgin Mary, which was the simplest expression for the Church's position at that time. The diagonal in mediaeval geometric parlance represents the union of the sides, and is therefore the repetition of the statement in the west portal of Christ enthroned on his Mother's lap.


To calculate circle 'D' he took this diagonal (shown in Diagram IV), and on it drew a circle-the perfection of the whole as symbolised by the union of Christ and Mary. Within that circle he drew the triangle of the Trinity, the Godhead within the whole,[29] and the side of that gave circle 'D'. These three circles link the labyrinth to the rest of the building, and through their interaction give it that living quality which we so surely recognise.

The last circle 'D' was the one mentioned earlier which was divided into twelve parts—to signify that it was the totality of things. At the centre they drew the six circles of perfection and the central one—Om—which was modified to provide an entry. (This process is shown in Diagram V).


The ring around the centre was then divided into eleven tracks, and the width of each was again divided into eleven parts, two of which made the solid strip between the tracks. The proportion of the tracks reinforces the numbers which created them.

This is a simple and mature arrangement. Christ and Mary conjoined through the Spirit, the triangle, from which is formed the circle of the Way. The Way represents the whole and is there-fore divided by twelve, which includes three parts to describe the Rose of Paradise and its petals, and nine to form the eleven-fold pathway. Geometry and number express and respect the essentials, and if any of my readers doubt their dedication to these concepts, read Simson.

Lastly consider the position of the labyrinth in the nave of the cathedral.[30] The word nave has the same root as naval, and like the Ark conjures up images of support midst the terrors of the deep —the support of reason when the powers of the unconscious loom before us, and this is what the labyrinth is about.

Further, the entire church represents a message similar to that written into the sculpture—that the cross-axis from north to south is that of Mary and the Wisdom she brings, while the long axis is man's understanding and consciousness as he proceeds with this knowledge from the temporal, the west, to the sanctuary and the sacred. It lies at the beginning of this path to show the Way, while the aim lies at the other in man's contact with God in the Eucharist. The labyrinth is man's path while the altar in the east is God's.

In Asian thinking a place has importance when it possesses four things: the temple and the palace which together provide purpose and order, the market place where man's activities interact, and the crossroads which bring men together. The mediaeval cathedral is the western statement of this idea. It is a cross roads with four arms and a central point; it has its temple in the sanctuary; and in the extremities of the three arms are literally placed the market, for here the scribes, lawyers, goldsmiths and booksellers were to be found. The palace occupies the nave.

This image is as full of meanings as the others. Temple balances palace across the axis of men's activities, whose joint task it is to see to their future and welfare. The altar is the supreme symbol of the temple, usually contained behind its own screen, while the labyrinth represents that aspect of the palace which has to do with man's guidance towards God and the temple. It is the Way within the temporal, and in the cathedral it is properly placed at the beginning of the traveller's approach to the sanctuary.

All of us feel the gap between our own world and the transcendental. In some societies the other world is denied, and in others it is enlarged and made closer through mysticism. This other world is not perceived by our senses, but we respond to its powers—we know it unconsciously, which is the same as saying that we know it mystically. To the extent that the cathedral and the labyrinth within it express this mystical union, the more tangible the spiritual becomes, and the more is the transcendental made real.

When we consider the vast host of meanings contained within this one device, is it any wonder that the labyrinth became one of the most important symbols used in mediaeval churches, and that today it is again being recognised, because our hearts tell us its message? Its language is as valid for our emotions as it was for theirs: the only difference is that through the purity of their knowledge, their understanding was richer than ours.


Barsley, M. The Left-Handed Book, London 1966.

Borg, J. Mazes and Labyrinths, London 1976.

Cornford, F. M. Plato's Cosmology, London 1937.

Crichlow, K. Jane Carrol and Llewylyn Vaughn Lee, "Chartres Maze, a model of the Universe?" Architectural Association Quarterly, Summer 1973.

Delaporte, Y. "L'Ordinaire Chartrain du XIIIe siècle" Société d'archéologique d'Eure-et-Loire, 1952-3.

Gobillot, R. and J. Lemarie "Le Labyrinthe de la Cathedrale", Notre Dame de Chartres, June 1972.

Halevy, B. The Tree of Life, London 1973.

Hopper, V. F. Medieval Number Symbolism, New York 1938.

James, J. "The Contractors of Chartres", Architectural Association Quarterly, Spring 1972.

"Medieval Geometry—The Western Rose of Chartres Cathedral" Architectural Association Quarterly, Summer 1973.

"Medieval Astrology—the west portal of Chartres" The Australian Astrologer 1974-5.

Jung, C. G. Collected Works, New York 1967.

Kollar, P. Symbolism of Space in Sacred Architecture, Aquinas Academy,

Matthews, W. H. Mazes and Labyrinths, their History and Development, London 1922.

Newman, E. The Origins and History of Consciousness.

M. Palencious. Islam and the Divine Comedy.

Santarcangeli, P. Il libro dei labirinti. Storia di un miro e di un Simbolo, Florence 1967.

Simson, O. von. The Gothic Cathedral, New York 1964.

Stahl, W. H. Macrobius' Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, New York.


[1] This study comes from an investigation begun seven years ago into the history of the Cathedral of Chartres, the masters who built it and the geometry (both structural and theological) which formed it. I have used all my skills as an experienced architect and historian to do this work, and the published material is listed in the bibliography. The monograph containing all my findings is in the hands of the publishers and the first part will appear in French and English some time in 1973. It is referred to here as The Contractors. The Labyrinth of Chartres was made in 1200 or 1201.

[2] Where authors are referred to, see bibliography.

[3] Challine, C. "Researches sur Chartres", Chartres, 1918.

[4] Quoted from a Pamphlet of Prayers collected at the Sufi Retreat of Beshara, Oxfordshire, 1972.

[5] Jung, IX, p. 387.

[6] Katzenellenbogan, A. The Sculptural Program of Chartres Cathedral, New York 1959.

[7] Or perhaps, as discussed later, from 'laye', the French for the double-headed axe used by the masons to shape their stones.

[8] Jung, IX, p. 174.

[9] Gematria is the time-honoured technique of equating words and phrases with numbers by giving each letter a number. 'A' would be 1, 'B' would be 2, and so on. The sum of the letters is therefore the number of the word. Certain numbers therefore became more significant than others, and some words were re-spelt, or phrases reworded so they would coincide with the most relevant numbers. See F. Bligh Bond Gematria, London, 1976.

[10] Also Christ had only eleven true apostles. Another tack might be in magic squares which fascinated the middle ages—those arrangements of numbers where every row, up down and diagonally, will add up to the same figure. There are three by three squares with all the numbers from one to nine, four by four squares, and so on up to ten, and then on from twelve, but none for eleven. Magic square may have corroborated a reason for using eleven rings, but I do not see that they were meaningful enough in themselves to create the idea in the first place.

[11] This is printed in Crichlow, 1973.

[12] St. Francis' poetry showed he knew Sufi writing; a number of scholars from Chartres are known to have studied' Arabic texts, and at least one worked for a while in Cordover.

[13] James, 1974-5, and its bibliography.
The Reims labyrinth has eleven circles like Chartres, but the arrangement is different. We pass through the outer three circles first, then the next five, ad lastly the inner three. The paths through the cartouches with the four architects is in the outer group. Clearly the Zodiac will not fit here, but the Ptolemaic/Platonic series adopted by the Church does fit. Outer three rings Earth, Moon and Mercury being the numbers 8, 9 and 10 with their magic squares, and the intimations of temporality and wisdom; followed by the five (planets and sun? arbitrary? put sun in first three?) and lastly with the Stars, the Primum Mobile and the Empyreum. God Himself, and the Rose of Paradise still sits in the centre.

[14] Katzenellenbogen.

[15] There are many adornments to this interpretation in patterns of Cardinal and Mutable signs, in the relationship between earthly signs in the first series and water in the second, and so on which may have given mediaeval scholars and alchemists great delight, but which make tedious reading.

[16] A Perfect number is one whose factors add up to the number itself. These are 1, 6, 28 and then 496. The first three add up to 35, see later.

[17] Spirit times matter (3 x 4); Evolution plus Involution (5 + 7); and see discussion on numbers in the Geometry of the western Rose, which had been designed by the same master—James, 1972.

[18] This master, whom I called Scarlet, used a Roman Foot of 294.45mm in his first campaign in 1194, and from this calculated a second measure called the Ped Manualis of 353.34 mm. When used together with skill two measures can greatly enrich the design of buildings. See discussion in The Contractors. 740 of the Pes Manualis is 0.22 metre less than the distance of the path, an error of less than one in 0.001.

[19] Being 185—See note 9.

[20] This is evident in the geometric methods used in the cathedral, where in the best examples the geometry is "circular": the first step being restated in the last. Architectural Scholasticism! See examples in "The Contractors".

[21] The geometry of this Rose window and its number symbolism was published in the summer, 1973 issue of The Architectural Association Quarterly.

[22] There is actually a small error of 2mm in each cog. The diameter of the larger circle as discussed later is 36 Pes Manualis, and with 114 for the circumference we get a value for ir of 19/6, which is almost as accurate as 22/7, and easier to construct.

[23] Doesn't he repeat the image for the orb/dorjé? Alain de Lille, "Anti-Claudian", Philadelphia, 1935.

[24] Just in case you are now thinking that you can make any number fit some phrase or other, try it out with the ones used in the middle ages, and with their spelling. You will find out that they coincide in only about 8% of the numbers, and that these all have certain qualities in common—Ian Sommerville pointed out to me that the sum of their factors will always give another sacred number. 112 is also double 56, which is the number of Roman Feet in the span of the nave and spells "ROES", or Regina Coeli Sedia Sapientia.

[25] One thirteenth of the circle, measured across the facet, is 496.6mm, while the radius of the petal to the centre of the band is 480mm. The 17mm difference is appreciable.

[26] Christ is often given the number five, as the Perfect Man, or as the consecrated. Each petal of the Rose is opened by one fifth of the foot, leaving a net gap at the opening of five fifths.

[27] Circle 'B' measures 13,006mm which is almost 25 petal radii (12,974mm) and almost 44 Roman Feet—see note 18 (44 x 294.45 = 12,956mm). The latter would have been a good first step, as it represents the quaternity of the Hu. But neither are accurate enough to be acceptable.

[28] The overall length of the cathedral, in spite of changes made by later masters, is 129,100mm, while the diameter of this circle is 12,885mm. It is important to note that the length of the cathedral, or if you like the internal space of the temple, determines the number of days in the year: 365 1/4 Pes Manualis is 129,057mm! All measurements of the cathedral and of the labyrinth have been made with the greatest possible accuracy, sometimes being repeated many times, checked by theodolite survey and carefully prepared string lines. Where possible many examples measured and averages taken. See in particular ch. VIII of The Contractors.

[29] As Christ sits within the mandorla in the central tympanum in the west.

[30] In The Contractors I show that the initial geometry used to set out the building stretches from the altar under the rondpont in the east to the centre of the labyrinth in the west, and that each represents a pole of the church, around which radiate the chapels and towers, the transepts and the aisles—but central to everything is the core statement which lies between these two crucial objects.

Original editorial inclusions that followed the essay in Studies:
For a soul may not stand still always in one state while that it is in the flesh; for it is either profiting in grace, or impairing in sin.
Walter Hilton

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