Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth – a Hidden Secret
If you have heard of France then surely you have heard of Chartres Cathedral, one of the greatest architectural wonders of France.
If you visit Chartres Cathedral then you’ll undoubtedly be blown away by the stunning stonework, amazing stained glass and dazzling statuary. But it boasts another, special feature that goes unnoticed by the casual visitor. And it is right beneath your feet as soon as you walk in.
I’m talking about the Labyrinth.
Embedded in the floor of the nave, the labyrinth at Chartres is perfectly preserved, and is the finest of the medieval cathedral labyrinths in France.
It is a rare example of a religious labyrinth, which is not a “puzzle” maze intended to get the visitor lost, but rather symbolises the path to God and religious enlightenment. Constrained within a circular design, the path of the labyrinth winds back and forth for 260m and ends in a flower-shaped motif in the centre. The symbol at the centre represents the City of God.
There is a good reason why the labyrinth goes unnoticed by most visitors. Chartres Cathedral is a place of worship and normally the nave of the cathedral is lined with chairs for people to sit during service – consequently much of the labyrinth is obscured for most of the time. Many people visit the cathedral and never even notice it. When we went there last we were approached on two occasions by people asking where to find the labyrinth – and on each occasion we were able to point at the ground and say – “There it is!”
Other labyrinths used to existed in the cathedrals of Reims, Sens, Arras and Auxerre but have been destroyed, while a very few others still partially survive in the Cathedral of Amiens, Saint-Quentin, and the Chapter House at Bayeux – but none of those matches Chartres.
The thirteenth century pilgrims would make their way around this winding path in prayer, as they would if making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so these labyrinths were also called “Roads to Jerusalem”.
When to See the Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth Uncovered
The cathedral authorities remove the chairs and uncover the labyrinth to allow it to be walked on midsummer day, June 21st. The cathedral has also begun uncovering the labyrinth every Friday from Easter until September, if church business allows. However, this is not 100% guaranteed, as funerals and special services occasionally lead to the labyrinth remaining covered. So bear in mind that finding the labyrinth uncovered is partly down to luck.
Nevertheless, to have the best chance of seeing the labyrinth go on a Friday during the summer or on midsummer day. Aim to get there early before the tour buses arrive, or late in the afternoon when they have left.
As a footnote, the labyrinth of Chartres gets a mention in recent pulp fiction – the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardy (a reference to the incorrect supposition that the Rose Window of the Cathedral fits the labyrinth?) and another one whose title escapes me – something about north versus south religious conspiracies, linking past and present.
For further information on the labyrinth at Chartres: