Labyrinths in medieval churches: An investigation of form and function
By DeAnna Dare Evans
Master’s Thesis, University of Arizona, 1992
Abstract: This thesis analyzed the designs of a select group of labyrinths set into the pavements of Gothic churches in northern France. The designs of these labyrinths and their possible meanings and functions were examined. Existing information on the labyrinths, including oral traditions associated with them were considered. A study of earlier medieval church labyrinths and illustrations of labyrinths in medieval manuscripts was made. In addition, medieval philosophy and history were considered. The various meanings and functions scholars have proposed for the labyrinths were critically reviewed. It was possible to draw some conclusions as to the labyrinths’ original meanings and their functions and to trace the evolution of these meanings and functions during the Middle Ages.
Introduction: The labyrinth is a widespread motif that has been in existence since prehistoric times. This thesis will focus on the labyrinths of a specific time and place, those set into the pavements of Gothic churches in northern France. The designs of a select group of these labyrinths and their possible meanings and functions will be considered.
One general definition of a labyrinth is “a geometric figure, with a round or rectangular external border, that makes sense only when regarded as an architectural plan, from above.” An entrance in the figure’s border leads to the center, but a series of twisting and turning paths occupying the entire interior space must be negotiated before it is reached. Eventual understanding of a labyrinth comes if one has access to a diagram of its structure or can physically place oneself above it, thereby gaining an overview of the labyrinth in its entirety. Regardless of whether a labyrinth is a drawing, engraved or incised on stone, or an actual three-dimensional structure, once one begins traversing the labyrinth, either by following it with the eyes, tracing its path with a finger, or physically entering it, one becomes “lost”, unaware of one’s location within the overall configuration.