The labyrinth set into the floor stones in the nave of Chartres Cathedral may be the world’s most recognized and famous path, yet it is surrounded in mystery.
Thought to be a representation of the spiritual quest of the pilgrim traveling to the holy land, labyrinths like this began appearing in Europe in the 12th century, mostly in Italy. The labyrinth at Chartres is a little over 42 feet in diameter, and is thought to have once been graced by an image of the Minotaur at its center (a motif common in mazes and labyrinths around the world).
There have been many theories and elaborate mythology surrounding the original construction of the labyrinth. It is most likely constructed in the first decades of the 13th century, but no one knows for sure exactly when the labyrinth was made, as no documents have yet been found, and little is known about the builders. An excavation in 2001 investigated claims that the center of the labyrinth was the site of a memorial or tomb for the cathedral and/or labyrinth masons, but despite extensive digging, no evidence was found to back up such claims.
Nonetheless, pilgrims have indeed been coming to Chartres to walk the famous labyrinth for thousands of years now, and the tide shows no sign of slowing.
The Cathedral itself is a marvel of Gothic architecture, constructed over 26 years beginning in 1145. In addition to the labyrinth, pilgrims visit the site to see the Sancta Camisa, a relic purporting to be the tunic worn by Mary at Jesus’ birth, and the Puits des Sants-Forts, or the “Well of Strong Saints” – the supposed final resting place of early martyr saints who met a messy end. The Cathedral is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although the labyrinth is partially obscured by chairs, it is traditionally uncovered every Friday from 10 am to 5 pm from Lenten season (usually around end of February) to the “day of the saints,” the 1st of November. Another outdoor labyrinth is located behind the Cathedral, in Les Jardins de l’Eveche.