The Labyrinthine Path of Pilgrimage
By Tessa Morrison
Peregrinations: International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Art, Vol.1:3 (2003)
Introduction: Within many of the great Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres Cathedral, San Michele Maggiore, Pavia, and San Vitale, Ravenna, lay large floor labyrinths. Most of these face the altar as the dominant feature of the nave, and are either round or octagonal in shape. They vary in size from cathedral to cathedral. In France, some measure a massive twelve and half meters in diameter, large enough to walk on, following the path into the center. The geometric structure that appears in the architectural labyrinths also appears in computus manuscripts, which feature calendar computations, astronomical computation, and cosmological texts. This article will examine how pilgrimage became embodied in the concept of the labyrinth, beginning with the earliest known use of these medieval floor labyrinths, the Auxerre pelota ritual and its possible predecessors, then it will investigate its connection to Easter and its embodiment in ecclesiastical dance that reflected the harmony of the spheres and the tripartite dance of the angels.
The labyrinths on the cathedral floors became known as “the path to Jerusalem,” a symbol of pilgrimage. This is reflected in etchings and drawings of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, which show members of the congregation sedately walking on the paths of the labyrinth, while other drawings show monks praying on their knees demurely crawling around the path of a turf labyrinth. These images of the contemplative walker of the labyrinth have remained in the public mind, inspiring a contemporary growth in the popularity of church labyrinths and groups walking labyrinths. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that these meditative walks around the path of the labyrinth occurred prior to these eighteenth and nineteenth century images.