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Chartres and other church mazes

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They compassed the city seven times. Joshua 6.15

Chartres maze walls Chartres maze path

The blue diagram above shows the walls of the Chartres maze, and the red diagram, the path you walk. This page mostly uses the path diagrams, which are easier to understand. The Chartres maze was definitely designed as a walking maze.

Chartres maze

Chartres Cathedral was built in France in 1235 AD. In the nave is the "Chemin de Jerusalem" (Road of Jerusalem), a pavement maze with a completely different pattern to the Cretan maze or the Roman mosaics. The Christian symbolism is obvious, with the four arms of the cross replacing the perhaps more dubious symbolism of the Cretan maze. Either you were supposed to walk the maze as a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (see myths), or you had to shuffle along on your knees as a penance.

The Chartres maze is an improvement on the Cretan and Roman mazes. The Cretan maze involves walking round nearly the whole circle each time before doubling back. The Roman maze has shorter paths, yet you have to walk entirely round one quarter before starting on the next. The Chartres maze is more fun to walk, since you move from one quarter to the next, and then back to a previous quarter, while also getting closer and further from the centre. Perhaps the Chartres pattern was developed by combining the best of the other two designs. It took the two different levels and the roundness from the Cretan, and the four sections from the Roman, and added a twist or two of its own, and came up with what I think is the best form of unicursal maze (without choice or branches). When you walk it for the first time, you genuinely don't know which section you're going to do next.

The Chartres maze is not the oldest church maze. The Reparatus maze, a Roman mosaic maze, is in a fourth century basilica in Algeria. There are also other designs in churches which may pre-date the Chartres maze (see below). However, the Chartres design is so good that it has been widely copied, both in churches and in most English turf mazes. On the right is a roof boss from St. Mary's Redcliffe in Bristol. The Chartres maze is the design that everyone now uses as the traditional Christian maze, so I am going to analyse it first. Roof boss in St Mary's Redcliffe, Bristol

How to walk the Chartres maze

Chartres maze path The next diagrams show the way that you walk the maze. The diagram on the left shows the path, but it is easy to get confused with all those lines going back and forth, so I have redrawn it in colours, on the right. You start on red, which turns to orange, then yellow, and so on through the rainbow. You can see that you start by wiggling into the centre of the maze, then wind your way out, one level at a time, in 'H' shapes. Finally, at the outer edge, you wiggle your back to the centre. Chartres maze colours
Chartres maze rectangle This looks strange, but what I have done is cut from the bottom of the maze to the middle, being careful not to cut through a path. Then I uncurled the maze so it made a rectangle. I kept the colours the same, so, hopefully, you can see what's going on. This way of looking at the maze makes it easier to understand what is going on.

Drawing the Chartres maze (walls)

Super Chartres maze walls

Here is a way of drawing the walls of a Chartres maze. You start with a 'seed' pattern (see left). Then you join the dots. Start from the centre and work outwards. The first three joinings are half circles. Then you draw quarter circles until near the edge. The last three joinings are also half circles. If you want to watch this being drawn, click on the Draw button. To get the seed pattern back again, click on the See button. This seed pattern was suggested by Nathan Phillips, developed from an idea here. The pattern was discovered earlier by Lindsay Heyes.

As the first half circles are a little tricky, the seed pattern on the right already has them. You continue with the quarter circles.

Super Chartres maze walls

Scaling the Chartres maze up & down

The standard form of this maze (see above) has 11 circuits for its path (and the walls have 12 circuits). Walking the maze (or looking at the rectangle above) shows that there are two layers. It is easy to add on an extra level to make a Super Chartres.

Super Chartres maze walls Super Chartres maze

This Super Chartres diagram on the right has funny bobbles round the outside. If you look carefully, you will see that they don't alter the essential nature of the maze, so I haven't put them on the walls diagram (left). Some people call them bastions, but I have seen a diagram in a Tudor gardening book which is very nearly a Super Chartres design, with identical bobbles, and the book suggests you plant roses in them! If you don't like them, leave them out and make the three outside paths into smooth circles.

I don't know any examples of Super Chartres mazes in Church mazes. See turf mazes and garden mazes.

Mini Chartres maze

You can also have a one level mini Chartres. If you want to make your own, small, unicursal maze, then I recommend this one. To help you, I've given the walls (right) as well as the paths (left). I thought I'd invented it, but then found a church example (see below).

Mini Chartres maze - walls

Examples of Chartres church mazes

Standard Chartres mazes

  • Pavement, Chartres, France
  • Roof boss, St. Mary's Redcliffe, Bristol, UK
  • Pavement, St Quentin, France (octagon)
  • Pavement, Amiens, France (octagon)
  • Wall, Poitiers, France (with errors)
  • Wall, Duomo di San Martino, Lucca, Italy

Mini Chartres mazes

  • Basilique de Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, Guingamp, France (mirror image)
  • Garden maze in the Abbey of Lagrasse, France


Chartres mazes are usually round, but you do find octagonal forms. Here is a mini octagonal Chartres maze.

There are also English turf mazes with a Chartres maze pattern.

The Eagle Point Labyrinth is in Land's End in Lincoln Park, San Francisco, overlooking the Golden Gate bridge. It is a standard Chartres design, a pevbble maze, created by local artist Eduardo Aguilera.

Photos of church Chartres mazes

Lucca Maze

I originally assumed that the maze in the Chartres cathedral was the original of this design, since it names the pattern. However, there is an ancient wall maze in the cathedral at Lucca in Italy, where people use their finger to trace the pattern into the centre and back again. The pattern is identical to Chartres. It can be difficult to date a maze. The cathedral at Lucca was built in 1060, and the maze is widely described on the web as being ninth century. This would make it far older than the Chartres maze, and perhaps the original. However, the maze is on a wall in the porch (which was made in 1204), and may have been done much later. Did someone copy the Chartres maze, or was this the original pattern?

The inscription says "HIC QUEM CRETICUS EDIT DAEDALUS EST LABERINTHUS, DE QUO NULLUS VADERE QUIVIT QUI FUIT INTUS, NI THESEUS GRATIS ADRIANE STAMINE JUTUS", translation: "This is the labyrinth built by Dedalus of Crete; All who entered therein were lost, save Theseus, thanks to Ariadne's thread."

This photo was taken by Keith Salvesen, who has kindly allowed me to reproduce it.

Maze in the Abbey of Lagrasse

Norwich Maze

Maze in Norwich Cathedral This maze is in the cloisters of Norwich Cathedral. It was built to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (in 2002). As you can see, it is greatly enjoyed by these school children. The entrance is on the left. By the way, these cloisters have some of the best examples of Green Men as roof bosses anywhere, and they have been beautifully re-painted. Nothing to do with mazes, but equally intriguing. Green Man in Norwich Cathedral
Maze in the Abbey of Lagrasse

Maze in the Abbey of Lagrasse

This maze is in the Abbey of Lagrasse, between Carcassonne and Narbonne. It is in the medieval garden resurrected by the monks. It is nearly a mini Chartres but the middle is different.

Strictly speaking, this is a turf maze, but it is in an abbey, so I've put it on this page.

Maze in the Hereford Mappa Mundi

In Hereford Cathedral, there is a medieval map of the world, or Mappa Mundi. This dates from about 1300. On Crete, it shows the Labyrinth (see left). This is clearly a Chartres maze. Older pictures of the Cretan Labyrinth often showed it as a Cretan, or classical pattern. Chartres Cathedral had only been built a few decades previously, so this design would have been more fashionable, and perhaps more respectable, as a Christian pattern.

Chartres maze in the Mappa Mundi

There are more photos of Chartres mazes under Turf mazes.

Other church mazes

Here are some other church mazes. The blue diagrams show the walls of the mazes below, and the red diagrams shows the paths. The rainbow design shows how you walk it. You start on red, which turns to orange, then yellow, and so on through the rainbow. All these mazes are unicursal mazes, that is, without choices or branches.

Reparatus maze

This is a Roman spiral design. It is the earliest Christian maze. It is in Algeria, as a mosaic in the fourth century basilica of San Reparatus at El Asnam (formerly Castellum Tingitanum) near Orleansville. It gives a link between the ordinary Roman mosaics, which were domestic, and the Christian church mazes. The four arms of the normal Roman maze may have suggested the Christian cross, which then got developed into the other mazes, finishing with the best one, the Chartres design (see above).
Reparatus maze

Ravenna Labyrinth

Ravenna walls Ravenna path Ravenna coloured

This is a pavement maze in Basilica di San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy. The church is sixth century, but the floor of the church was re-constructed in the sixteenth century after floods. However the maze could be a copy of an older one. This pattern also occurs in a Victorian church outside the village of Compton in Surrey. There is also a plan of a hedge maze planted by Lord Burleigh at Theobalds in around 1560. This is square rather than round, but has an identical design. There is also an example of this maze on a website, called the Boticelli Labyrinth. It claims Botticelli represented the ancient Egyptian labyrinth in one of his engravings. I can find no other reference to this engraving by Botticelli (1444-1510). If it exists, he probably copied this from the Ravenna pavement, and said it was an ancient maze, just as many people put a picture of Theseus in the middle of Cretan or Chartres mazes.

When you walk this maze, you go straight to the centre, then walk the inner part, then the outer part, before wiggling back to the centre. It is not so symmetrical as the Chartres pattern, and of course it is smaller. Does this mean it's a more primitive form?

The photo is by Keith Salvesen, who has kindly allowed me to reproduce it.

Ravenna Labyrinth

Bayeux maze

Bayeux maze - walls Bayeux maze - paths Bayeux maze - coloured

This maze is laid as a pavement in the Chapter House of Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy, France. Various dates are given from thirteenth to sixteenth century. It is distinct from both Ravenna and Chartres. You walk the outer part of the maze first, then the inner. This is less interesting than the other way round, which is managed by Ravenna and Chartres. One feature is that it has three paths which make a complete circuit before doubling back on themselves: the outer green path, the initial red path in the middle, and the final pink path. All other medieval mazes have a wall going from the outside straight to the centre. The Bayeux pattern's final circuit interrupts this wall. If they had drawn it the other way, then it wouldn't! In fact, the final circuit adds nothing to the pattern (although perhaps something to the symmetry) and could be removed altogether. Incidentally, this shows that the normal method of classifying unicursal mazes by how many circuits they have is unsound, since you could always add more circuits in the centre without altering the fundamental pattern. These inelegancies of this pattern might suggest that the Bayeux pattern is more primitive than the Chartres, or it might be that Bayeux were jealous of Chartres and wanted their own pattern. In doing so, they came up with something less elegant (but at least different, they muttered to themselves!)

Designing a unicursal maze is harder than a branching maze. When you have a space in a branching maze, you can always fill it with a dead-end, but every part of a unicursal maze must not only have a path snaking in, but also out again. No dead-ends!

Mirepoix maze

Mirepoix maze - walls Mirepoix maze - paths Mirepoix maze - coloured

This maze is a glazed pattern on nine tiles in the cathedral at Mirepoix, France. If you reverse this pattern, it is almost the same as the Chartres pattern. If the pattern was stamped onto the clay, this would reverse the original design. Three of the "arms" are identical to Chartres and one side of the remaining "arm" is as well. The only part that differs is the final path to the centre. It is straight rather than taking a wiggle and another path takes an extra wiggle to fill up the empty space. So this can hardly be described as an original pattern. I wonder if these changes were deliberate, or whether a mistake was made while splitting up the design between the nine tiles!

Reims maze

Reims maze - walls Reims maze - paths Reims - coloured

This used to exist in the cathedral at Reims, France. Around the year 1778 it was removed at the instigation of the canon Jacquemart who was annoyed by the "hilarious ado on the labyrinth".

Italian maze

Italian maze - walls Italian maze - paths Italian maze - coloured

I discovered this maze on the web, described as an Italian engraving. Unfortunately, no date was given. It is described as the labyrinth made by Daedalus, with a picture of Theseus and Ariadne, so it has a different context from the rest of these church mazes. However, it has its own pattern, unlike other book mazes which are forms of Chartres or Cretan. It has three parts, where the innermost is walked first, then the middle, then the outer, before wiggling back to the centre and a final circuit to fill in a bit that's been missed out! It is more similar to Ravenna or Bayeux than Chartres.

Watts mazes

These mazes are NOT medieval. However, they are original, and of a Chartres type, so I've put them here. They are in the Watts Mortuary Chapel (locally known as Watts Cemetery Chapel) at Compton, Surrey and are designed by Mary Fraser-Tytler, the wife of the artist G.F. Watts. It was constructed between 1896 and 1898 with virtually every local village resident involved. Thanks to Keith Salvesen for the photos - larger versions here. The mazes seem based on a mini Chartres maze, but have extra paths, perhaps just to make an original design.

Watts maze 1 photo Watts maze 1 paths Watts maze 1 walls Watts maze 1 coloured

This is a mini Chartres near the centre, with simple zigzags round the outside. The zigzags not like a Roman maze, however, as they are mirrored rather than rotated. It's a neat trick to fill up space, if you want something more complcated than a mini Chartres, but don't want a normal Chartres maze.

Watts maze 2 photo Watts maze 2 paths Watts maze 2 walls Watts maze 2 coloured

I've rotated the design to make the entrance at the bottom - this makes it easier to compare with others.

Comparison of European medieval mazes

It's interesting to compare the different Chartres-type medieval church mazes. Mazes of this type tend to have a single wall to the centre, so I have "cut along" that wall and unrolled the maze into a rectangle. Then I have coloured the path in rainbow colours, to show how the path is walked. This makes the patterns easier to understand and compare. If necessary, I have reversed the mazes, so all the entrances start from the left hand bottom corner.


Chartres rectangle A satisfying symmetrical pattern, where the inner part of the maze is walked before the outer.


Mirepoix rectangle Note similarity to Chartres apart from right hand bottom corner.


Ravenna rectangle Different from Chartres and looks more primitive. The top right hand corner is unsymmetrical.


Bayeux rectangle Similar to Ravenna but more symmetrical. Has long paths without wiggles, and the outer part is walked before the inner, so simpler.


Italian rectangle This has three parts rather than two (as in the previous mazes). It is closer to Ravenna than Chartres.


Reims rectangle This has three parts rather than two as well. Unlike the others, it covers the outside, then the middle, then the centre. This would make it less interesting to walk.

Watts 1

Watts maze 1 rectangle This 19C maze (from Watts Mortuary Chapel,Compton, Surrey) has two parts. The inner part (which is done first) is a mini Chartres maze but the outer part are zigzags in each quarter.

Watts 2

Watts maze 2 rectangle The second 19C maze from the Watts Chapel looks different, but in fact is very similar. There are just less zigzags on the outer part.

Bourn church pavement maze

Bourn church maze Bourn church maze

Bourn is a village in Cambridgeshire. There is a pavement maze under the font, shown in the photo above. This is a fairly modern maze, constructed in 1875. It's made of red and black tiles, measuring 15 feet by 12 feet and its design was based on the Hampton Court hedge maze. The notice on the left is in the church.

Ely Cathedral pavement maze

Ely Cathedral has many visitors who come to admire the octagonal lantern, the Lady Chapel and the Norman carvings. Most of them walk straight over a unicursal pavement maze at the entrance under the west tower, without noticing it! This maze was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1870. The total length of the path is claimed to be 215 feet (66 metres), which is the height of the tower. However, it's more than that - 294 feet. The design looks similar to the Chartres maze) but it is simpler. This is drawn in blue, as it gives the walls rather than the path. The original is in black and white.

This is an interesting maze, since Gilbert Scott went to the trouble of inventing a new maze, rather than just copying an older maze, as so many other people have.

Ely Maze

Temporary maze in Saffron Walden church

Saffron Walden church temporary maze

Saffron Walden has a famoud turf maze, and a good garden maze. In 2011, the town had a maze festival, with several temporary mazes scattered round the town. Here is the one in the church. It is a mini-Chartres.

Fish maze

Fish Maze

Fish Maze

This maze design is by Jackie Alcock (and the copyright is owned by her). She wanted to make a maze with a Christian theme, hence the fish and the chi-rho monogram. "A nice place to think and pray, to sit and maybe learn something."

Designs of my own

Maze with letters G-O-D I received a request for a cruciform maze which incorporated the letters GOD, nested inside each other. Here are my attempts. For the design on the left, the paths are in red, orange and yellow. The letters are in orange (which you can walk on) and purple (which you can't). The design on the right is more subtle in how it shows the letters. Maze with letters G-O-D