Labyrinths Within the Christian Church Today

October 17th, 2013
photo credit below

To put this topic in context, the labyrinth predates Christianity by at least 2,000 years. It has been used in many cultures worldwide for a variety of purposes. However, it has been used within the Christian church at least since the fourth century, approximately 1,700 years. Currently it is being used within the Christian church by thousands of people worldwide as a significant spiritual tool for prayer, reflection, contemplation, meditation, worship, celebration, and spiritual growth.

The WorldWide Labyrinth Locator (WWLL) illustrates the extensive use of the labyrinth in churches around the world. Of the WWLL’s approximately 4,265 current listings in 75 countries, 1,615 (38%) are for labyrinths located at or in churches. Another 165 (4%) are for labyrinths located at or in hospitals or other health-care settings. Frequently labyrinth use in these settings is coordinated through the chaplain’s office. Additionally, 541 (13%) of the listings are for labyrinths located at retreat centers, which frequently have ties to the Christian church. And this is not an exhaustive listing. The actual numbers worldwide are higher than this, because the WWLL only includes labyrinths that the owners have listed voluntarily on the Locator.

From this information, one can readily see that the labyrinth has a significant and influential place within the Christian church at the present time. Much of the growth of awareness and use of the labyrinth within the Christian church can be attributed to the publication in 1995 of the book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice. This book, by the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, a priest at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, sounded a receptive chord to many Christians seeking additional avenues for spiritual expression, spiritual growth, and worship. Use of the labyrinth in Christian churches has grown nearly exponentially since the book’s publication.

How did the labyrinth arrive at its current status of wide use within the Christian church?

Perhaps one could say that it has been a “labyrinthine journey.” Unless otherwise attributed, the information in the quick historical overview that follows has been abstracted from an excellent PowerPoint presentation, Labyrinths—Their History and Development (2011 ), produced and distributed by Veriditas, the nonprofit organization of which the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress is currently president.

The earliest known example of a labyrinth being used in a Christian context dates to soon after Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine. This is a labyrinth in the Reparatus Basilica in Al-Asnam, Algeria (northern Africa). It dates from around 324 AD. It is a square, mosaic labyrinth approximately 8 feet on each side. Although the labyrinth is too small to walk, it obviously was deliberately placed in a Christian Context. The center of the labyrinth contains a word square that spells out, in several directions, the Latin words “Sancta Ecclesia” (Holy Church).

Labyrinth drawings also began to appear in illuminated manuscripts from Christian monasteries between 500 and 1000 AD, including some from Auxerre, France (860s), and St. Germain-des-Pres (early 900s). Although too small to walk, labyrinths began to appear in cathedrals and churches in Italy by the 1100s. Often they were wall carvings or floor mosaics, such as the small carved labyrinth at the entrance to the Cathedral of San Martino, Lucca, Italy. This labyrinth has been dated from the 12th or 13 Century, AD. It could have been traced with a finger and used as a tool for prayer or contemplation before entering the cathedral.

There appears to have been an “explosion” of larger, walkable labyrinths in the pilgrimage cathedrals of Europe in the early 1200s. According to the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, at one point there were 23 cathedral labyrinths in Europe (personal communication, May 2013). Today only three remain: at San Quentin, Amiens, and Chartres. The labyrinth today at Amien Cathedral is a reconstruction of the original labyrinth. The original labyrinth was destroyed in the 1820s; it was reconstructed in the 1890s. With a doubt, the most famous of the cathedral labyrinths is the stone labyrinth inlaid into the floor of the nave at Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France. This labyrinth, still in its original form, dates from the early 1200s. It was installed when the cathedral was reconstructed following the second destructive cathedral fire late in the 12th century. This labyrinth, nearly 44 feet in diameter, serves as the model for many church labyrinths today. The Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress says, “Because this labyrinth is one of the few left intact, and is for the most part undamaged, many people think it is the original labyrinth. It is not, but it is one of the last remaining from its time.” (Artress, 1995, p 56)

History is unclear regarding how these cathedral labyrinths were used. According to noted labyrinth historian Jeff Saward, “The use of the labyrinths in medieval cathedrals is shrouded in mystery, so little contemporary commentary survives; however, the walking of pavement labyrinths by the clergy to celebrate the Easter ritual of death and resurrection is clearly documented. Tradition records that pilgrims visiting the cathedral labyrinths would walk the pathways before approaching the high altar to mark the completion of their journey.” (Saward, 2002, pp. 152-153)

Dating from the 1400s, labyrinths also were included in churches throughout Scandinavia, as well as on the porches and porticoes of churches in Spain dating from the 1600s. A number of new church labyrinths were constructed from the mid-1800s through the 1920s in the British Isles, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands.

An interesting turn on the labyrinthine journey of labyrinths within the Christian tradition occurred in the United States between 1805 and 1815. The Harmonists, a small Christian religious group that immigrated from Wurttemburg, Germany, and settled in Pennsylvania and later Indiana, constructed three hedge labyrinths that they associated with their religious beliefs and practices. The best known of these hedge labyrinths, and the only one still in existence, is located in New Harmony, Indiana. This labyrinth fell into disuse when the Harmonists moved back to Pennsylvania later in the 1800s, but was reconstructed in the 1940s. It consists of a labyrinth path, outlined by tall hedges, with a small temple at the center. It is available and very walkable today. John Melish wrote of this labyrinth in 1822 in the following manner: “This was a most elegant flower garden with various hedgerows disposed in such a manner as to puzzle people to get into the little temple, emblematical of Harmony in the middle. The Labyrinth represents the difficulty of arriving at harmony. The temple is rough on the exterior, showing that, at a distance, it has no allurements, but it is smooth and beautiful within to show the beauty of harmony when once attained.” (Lockridge, 1941, p. 13)

A few church labyrinths were constructed in the United States during the 1980s, or even earlier. Probably the first church in the United States to have a labyrinth installed inside it is Riverside Church in New York. In 1928 a small adaptation of the Chartres-style labyrinth was inlaid in front of the high altar. It is still in place today.

The current “explosion” of new church labyrinths, particularly in the United States, began in 1991 when Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco introduced a replica of the Chartres labyrinth painted on canvas. This was replaced by a carpet, tapestry labyrinth in the nave of the cathedral in 1994 and the construction of an outdoor terrazzo labyrinth in 1995. In 2007, the indoor carpet, tapestry labyrinth was replaced by a stone labyrinth. It is from this beginning that labyrinths have been re-introduced as relevant spiritual tools into Christian churches throughout the United States and worldwide, as described earlier. For example, in the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, more than 2,000 people walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral to pray and search for solace.

The evidence is very clear that the labyrinth has a long, rich tradition of use within the Christian church. Whether or not a Christian church today chooses to participate in this long-standing tradition is a decision to be made by the church. The decision to use the labyrinth as a tool for prayer, worship, and spiritual growth is, of course, always a personal decision. However, without question, those Christians who choose to incorporate the labyrinth into their own personal spiritual journey will find themselves in good company, both historically and at the present time.


Photo credit: New Harmony State Historic Site, Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites

Artress, Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice. New York, NY: Berkley Publishing Group, 1995, 2006.

Lockridge, R. F. The Labyrinth of New Harmony, Indiana. New Harmony, IN: the New Harmony Memorial Commission, 1941.

Saward, Jeff. Magical Paths: Labyrinths & Mazes in the 21st Century. London, UK: the Octopus Publishing Group, 2002.

Veriditas. Labyrinths—Their History and Development. Petaluma, CA: Veriditas, 2011.

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