Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

 Photo : Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

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Medieval Labyrinths

Medieval Variants

As with the classical labyrinth, a considerable number of variations upon the basic theme of the medieval labyrinth have been recorded. Circular, square, and polygonal forms of the basic medieval form are common and need no separate classification. However, some examples display deliberate attempts to produce a different design - with more or fewer circuits, different methods of connecting the pathways, or alterations to fit the space available or purpose intended. Some, such as the labyrinth formerly in Reims Cathedral, France, were especially influential. With the invention of printing in late 15th century, specific labyrinth designs appearing in early architecture and gardening books were widely copied and adapted further. Other variations are clearly the result of incorrect attempts at construction or inaccurate restorations of previous designs; this is especially the case with labyrinths formed from turf or boulders, which are prone to deterioration and disturbance.

Labyrinth Typology

Turf labyrinth,
Saffron Walden, England

Photo : Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

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The turf labyrinth formerly at Boughton Green, England, had a medieval design with various changes to the circuits and the centre replaced by a spiral

The current revival of interest in the medieval labyrinth design, especially in America since the mid-1990s, has resulted in the development of a number of new variations. Some are based directly on the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, often with fewer circuits to enable them to fit in confined spaces, or to produce wider paths. A number have been given specific names by their creators, but as most of these titles exist primarily to establish copyright, they can conveniently be included in this sub-category of the Medieval type.

St. Omer type

One particular medieval group deserves separate recognition - the St. Omer labyrinth. Although its pathway may seem to be a random meandering design, it can be demonstrated that the pattern was developed directly from the standard medieval form. The original example constructed in the fourteenth century at the Abbey of St. Bertin in St. Omer, northern France, was subsequently copied and further developed and has been employed on various occasions until recent times.

The pavement labyrinth formerly in the Abbey of St.Bertin, France

The pavement labyrinth formerly at Reims Cathedral, France, had a medieval design with various changes to the circuit connections and bastions at the four ‘corners’

The  design of the turf labyrinth at Sneinton, England shows several path connection ‘errors,’ resulting in a choice of paths and no central goal as such

This labyrinth design  from Serlio’s architectural design book of 1537 was used for the construction of a number of labyrinths across Europe during the 16th century