Symbollism in Sacred Architecture
Recently I watched a video recorded by Dr. Marshall which I interpreted as dismissing the use of labyrinths as purely decorative features and that the practice of walking them is New Age. While it is true that certain New Age groups have hijacked the symbollism of the labyrinth and misinterpreted the great gothic cathedrals of Europe and their labyrinths as having some sort of esoteric and pagan energy. This view is one which Catholics should not accept. The labyrinths and the gothic cathedral as a whole are richly filled with Christian imagery which serve a catchuetical purpose. Nothing in a traditionally built church is there for pure decoration.
In order to understand the meaning of the labyrinth we must understand what the church building is in Christian theology. The church is a representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem on Earth throughout the Church’s liturgy we see this referenced, it is the Holy City.
In fairness to Dr. Marshall there is not alot of information on the purpose of the labyrinths however there is a convincing theory for their function which ties into the church being the Heavenly Jerusalem. Since these cathedrals often served as pilgrim destinations it would be reasonable to hypothesize that the labyrinths served as a sort of symbollic “Road to Jerusalem”. There placement in the back of the nave would also be suggestive of this being a sort of devotional practice upon entering a pilgrim church which also relates to the labyrinth being a symbolic road to Jerusalem. This wouldn’t be a outlandish theory as the construction of the labyrinths vanished around the same time the devotion to the Via Crucis began another popular symbolic pilgrimage for those unable to go to the Holy Land.
Though this might seem like a small thing to fuss about I thought I would take the opportunity to explain the a piece of the rich theology and though many of the people who install labyrinths in their churches today do so for new age reasons. I highly doubt that the labyrinths were constructed for purely decorative reasons as nothing in a gothic cathedral is superfluously made.