Earlier this year I visited a number of labyrinths in northern Italy, including the labyrinth relief at Lucca. A rubbing of this labyrinth, given to me many years ago*, had sparked many questions that I wanted to investigate on-site.
The labyrinth, located outside the Cathedral of San Martino, is carved on a stone block and inserted vertically into one of the westernmost pillars of the porch. I looked for it as I approached the church. I had read it was on the north side of campanile (bell tower), which was obviously being restored.
As I got closer, I spotted the labyrinth inside the work zone on one of the pillars of the porch. Labyrinth researcher Hermann Kern wrote about the placement of the Lucca labyrinth, “…the early example in Lucca, which remains where it was originally installed…enables us to speculate about the location of other reliefs and what their function was. …the relief was carved into a wall—as a game for the fingers of the faithful. The fact that it was placed directly adjacent to the main portal–like French pavement labyrinths–suggests that it was supposed to help spiritually prepare the devout for the religious experience that they were about to have.” He also noted, “Joseph Sauer points out that in Lucca, the labyrinth is located opposite the Fall of Man[kind], suggesting the it represented the way back out of sin into a state of grace.” Through the Labyrinth. Designs and Meanings over 5,000 Years. New York: Prestel (2000), 144, 146. See also Sauer, Symbolik des Kirchengebaudes und seiner Ausstattung in der Auffassung des Mittelalters, 350.
The late twelfth or early thirteenth century eleven circuit (twelve circle) medieval-style labyrinth is round and approximately 19.5 inches across. Its entrance opens to the west, much like the later labyrinths installed on medieval cathedral floors. The path is raised while the “walls” or path dividers are carved out. Theseus’s battle with the Minotaur was once carved in the middle, but is now rubbed away. To the right is the Latin explanation, “Here is the labyrinth that Daedalus from Crete built, and which no one can exit once inside; only Theseus was able to do so thanks to Ariadne’s thread.”
At the base of the pillar is an inscription +SEPULTURA ROLANDI DE BRACULA+. Similar inscriptions are found on two of the other sides of the tower; the relationship of this burial notice to the labyrinth is unclear.
I was not able to get close to the labyrinth, but I was able to study it from a distance. Since it most likely predates the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth (1201-1220), its similarities (over-all pattern, western location, path opening from the west) and differences (smaller center, for use with a finger and not feet, different levels of the path and its dividers) interested me.
If I am ever able to get back to Lucca, I hope to feel the smooth stone pathway that will lead my fingers, like those of countless other pilgrims before me, to the center and back out.
*With many thanks to MJ McGregor and Steven Dahl whose journey to Lucca included time to make a full size rubbing of the labyrinth for me.