Along the Via Francigena on the pilgrimage route between Canterbury, England, and Rome, is a small Church of St. Peter in Pontremoli, Italy. Interestingly, Lucca and Pavia, two other churches with medieval labyrinths are also on this ancient pathway.
The labyrinth at Pontremoli, carved out of a block of sandstone, is one of the few parts of the previous convent church that survived its repeated and extensive bombing during World War 2. It can be seen behind glass in the back of the modern sanctuary.
The labyrinth slab from the twelfth-century is approximately 32 inches by 21.5 inches. It was a part of the facade of the church for centuries, although documentation about its original location and vertical or horizontal orientation no longer exist. The pattern of this labyrinth is the same as at the thirteenth-century labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France.
The Pontremoli labyrinth closely resembles the labyrinth in Lucca, Italy.
There are some significant differences. The paths of this labyrinth are carved out rather than raised. This labyrinth is also slightly tilted, making the entrance a bit above center. Both labyrinths have inscriptions, the Lucca labyrinth referring to the myth of Theseus, this labyrinth to a New Testament theme. Around the outside of the bottom is a Latin inscription from 1 Corinthians 9:24, “Run, that you may win.” The full verse reads, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.” (NRSV)
The prize mentioned can be understood by examining the inscriptions in the center. A cross, carved towards the top, is intersected by IHS, an abbreviation of the Greek name for Jesus.
Another unique feature of this labyrinth are the two figures (knights?) on horseback at the top. They seem to represent a struggle between good and evil. Although they are not visible in my pictures there are two symbols carved into the upper section that relates to the passage of time: a dragon or snake biting its tail and an hourglass.
This labyrinth and the symbolism that surrounds it is fascinating. If you can, visit it for yourself! The San Pietro church is not often open. For a suggestion of how to get the key see the worldwide labyrinth locator. I also came across the web address of an Italian tour company that seems willing to make arrangements (although I can’t vouch for them since I didn’t use them). There is a mold of the labyrinth in the Diocesan Museum of Pontremoli which can be opened by request. For a guided tour call 3488097918.
Special thanks to my husband, Tim, who was willing to take our vacation time to drive me to visit various Italian labyrinths. Thanks too to the man in this photo, a parishioner, who saw us waiting at the church (the person we had arranged to meet did not show up) and rustled up the key.
Other posts in this series: