Searching for the String: Labyrinths in Classical and Medieval Art

In Lucca, inscribed on one of the church of San Martino’s piers, is a Latin inscription and an accompanying illustration of a labyrinth dating to the 12th century. Thousands of pilgrims have traced their fingers along its grooves in the past 800 years, each using the etching to outline the difficult path taken by the believer to achieve salvation.

The maze and the accompanying inscription from the Cathedral at Lucca (Image via Wikimedia).
The maze and the accompanying inscription from the Cathedral at Lucca (Image via Wikimedia).

HIC QUEM CRETICUS EDIT
DAEDALUS EST LABERINTHUS,
DE QUO NULLUS VADERE
QUIVIT QUI FUIT INTUS,
NI THESEUS GRATIS ADRIANE (!)
STAMINE JUTUS.

“Here is the labyrinth which Daedalus of Crete built; which no one is able to exit from who is within (it), except for Theseus, thanks to Ariadne’s thread.”

When I first saw the etching, I was rather surprised that a Christian church referred to an event from Greek mythology; however, use of the labyrinth as a metaphor for life’s odysseys and for the journey taken during the afterlife is almost continuous from antiquity to early modern period. Alternately known as a Chemin de Jérusalem, a daedale, or a meandre, labyrinths were puzzles that spatially represented human journeys.

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The 13th century labyrinth in the church floor at Chartres.

The use of space as allegory is a tool employed both by architects and by writers. The word labyrinth (Gr. λαβύρινθος) was originally a Greek technical term used when describing architecture and did not always specifically apply to the labyrinth of Knossos. Our first citation of it is in the 5th century BCE historian Herodotus, when he describes an Egyptian building (Litinas 2011: 455-6).

Labyrinth coins from the island of Crete, where the ancient structure was supposed to have been constructed, date to the early Hellenistic period. This coinage continued into the Roman era (See a collection from the ANS here), and helped people to quickly identify the source of their coinage. Many Hellenistic depictions have a 7 circuit labyrinth.

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A silver tetradrachm from the American Numismatic Society (1991.60.26) with Apollo on the obverse and the labyrinth on the reverse (200-67 BCE). Photos via the ANS’s Numismatics.org

The use of the labyrinth as an icon spread during the Roman period. Roman artists built upon the previous Greek, circular design, and refashioned it as a quadrant. These quadrangle labyrinths often took the shape of a rectangle or square, and were commonly placed in mosaics within elite Roman households. One of the most famous of these labyrinths is in a house in Pompeii, known as the ‘House of the Labyrinth.’ At the center of a monochromatic pavement is a colorful emblema of Theseus wrestling and killing the minotaur. We don’t know the patron’s reasons for using this theme, but it is clear that viewers must have worked through it clockwise (Fisher 2004: 6).

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Theseus wrestles the minotaur in the center of the labyrinth of cubiculum 42 within the ‘House of the Labyrinth’ at Pompeii.

It was not just elites who referenced the myth. A first century graffito from Pompeii noted: ‘Labyrinthus / hic habitat / Minotaurus’:  ‘Labyrinth. Here lives the Minotaur.’ Roman labyrinths were probably amusing to manually trace or to walk through, and, much like the garden mazes that became popular in early modern Europe, were a source of spatial escapism that diverted one’s attention while touring a house, eating, or milling about a peristyle waiting from the feast to begin.

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Graffito from the Pompeian peristyle of the House of the Lucretii (9.3.5, 24) = CIL IV, 2331.

The  tale also continued to fascinate the Roman literati. Daedalus’ construction of a labyrinth is referred to by Virgil as an ‘inextricabilis error’ (Aen. 6.27) in the epic tale of the Aeneid. The poet recounts that the inventor fled Crete and went to Cumae, where he chiseled a drawing of his labyrinth on the temple doors that opened onto the passage into the underworld. Not long thereafter, Aeneas is warned that while it is easy to enter the underworld, it is much harder to find your way out. Daedalus’ creation of the Labyrinth was not without its problems. In his Metamorphoses (8.167-8), Ovid reminds us that the builder almost got lost in his own creation: “He, himself, was scarcely able to return to the threshold” (vixque ipse reverti ad limen potuit). Even the creator was not omniscient.

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Mosaic of Theseus and the labyrinth from Paphos, on the island of Cyprus (image via Wikimedia) dating to the ca. 3rd century CE.

In her game-changing book, The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle AgesPenelope Reed Doob explored the use of the labyrinth as a metaphor. Classical and medieval labyrinths were visually portrayed as unicursal, i.e., a maze where one finds the end simply by following along one set path. However, classical texts themselves often described multicursal labyrinths. For instance, we know that the labyrinth of Knossos must have been multicursal, because Theseus needed a string to guide him. Doob believes that cathedral labyrinths from the high medieval period cast Christ as Theseus, who killed hell just as the Athenian hero cut down the minotaur.  Tellingly, the multicursal labyrinths hinge on the choices of the individual, whereas the unicursal labyrinth hinges on the choices of the creator. It was not until the Renaissance of the 15th century that humanists began to depict non-symmetrical, chaotic, and more confused labyrinths. This was perhaps a direct reflection of new way of thinking about human agency and the divine.

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Depiction of a unicursal labyrinth on the island of Crete in a Mappa Mundi from c. 1300 CE, now at Hereford Cathedral. See interactive map here.

As scholars such as Doob and, more recently, Craig Wright, have explored: the symbol of the labyrinth or the maze manifests in every artistic genre from visual arts to architecture and music. The meanings of the icon can change, but the tendency to collapse human time, experience, and hardship into a visual representation does not.

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Theseus escapes the labyrinth and the island of Crete in the mid 3rd. c. CE North African mosaic now at the Penn Museum.

On a more personal level, November 11th marked the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut, the famous author and a notable participant in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop here in Iowa City, where I now live. To mark the occasion, I watched an animation of a lecture he gave at NYU in 1970 on what it takes to be a writer. In it, he noted that even when authors believe they are creating fiction, they are writing about themselves on some maddening level. Perhaps my fascination with the ordering, mapping, and allegorizing of space in the past few years is further proof of this salient point.

Who doesn’t want to know that there is a correct, predetermined path or perhaps some salvific string that Ariadne will one day supply us? The “spatial turn” in Digital Humanities that I have referred to now in the past two posts is more than just an outgrowth of new technologies and new information, it stems from the continued struggle to combat an overwhelming amount of disordered knowledge both on the internet and in our lives. There is no doubt that it would be easier if there were just a unicursal labyrinth to follow…and, well, who’s to say there isn’t?

 

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Movie poster for the 1986 film ‘Labyrinth’ with David Bowie and a maze filled with teen angst (Image via Wikimedia).

18 thoughts on “Searching for the String: Labyrinths in Classical and Medieval Art

  1. I love Labyrinth! I’ve also walked a 7 circuit labyrinth as part of a meditation before. Never realised that it had it’s origins in Crete though. You’ve definitely inspired me to learn more about the labyrinth’s origins and how it’s used.

  2. I’m glad to see more serious attention given to labyrinths, which are mandalas of wholeness, which as you say we desperately need in our world that continues to experience exponential growth in information. Much of it is of real value, but will the center hold? I continue to experiment with labyrinths in my high school classes. As pressure mounts on students regarding achievement and depression rates soar, symbols of wholeness are needed. Even more valuable is a symbol that can be turned into some kind of ritual, which labyrinths can provide. https://martinschmidtinasia.wordpress.com/2010/11/25/walking-a-labyrinth-in-search-of-the-big-picture/

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  4. I love this post. It’s interesting and it’s revealing. Walking the whole length of a Labyrinth quietly while focusing on nothing except the blankness in your mind could be spiritually uplifting and fuffilling. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thank you for writing this and sharing it as your favorite post. I love the history you track on Labyrinth.

    Also love your reference to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. on the theme of a writer always appears somewhere in his or her fictional world. I do find that now I’m writing my first 10-minute play that several of my “fictions” center on redeeming a father. A is father redeemed in the sense that he becomes whole spiritually and returns to the family he abandoned. “If wishes where horses, beggars would ride.”

  6. I walked a labyrinth a few years ago with a small prayer group at our church. It was a garden labyrinth and it was lovely. We thought about our walk with God while we walked the labyrinth. The one we used was in a local woman’s yard and she allowed small groups to use it for their retreats. It was a lovely afternoon. Now I like labyrinths, too.

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