Labyrinths can be found on the floors (and sometimes walls) of many medieval churches and cathedrals, the most famous being the one found in the cathedral at Chartres, France. It is widely believed that these labyrinths provided an alternative to the physical pilgrimage to Jerusalem for those who could not travel the long and often dangerous journey. The twists and turns of these often large labyrinths represented the pathway through life in search of the Heavenly Kingdom, offering the pilgrim time to meditate on their life and perform acts of penance through prayer. The labyrinths also offered the pilgrim a focal point; a centre and final destination, often named Jerusalem or ciel (sky/heaven).
Much to my joy, I discovered that a medieval labyrinth can be seen in a town not too far from Clonmel. Saint Patrick’s Cross on the Rock of Cashel in Co. Tipperary, a high cross dating from the twelfth century, is unusual in that it possesses not only a depiction of a labyrinth on its base but also a minotaur. According to Peter Harbison in his article “A Labyrinth on the Twelfth – High Cross Base on the Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary” this was not unusual and many medieval manuscripts retained representations of the Minotaur, from the Cretan legend and the figure we most associate with the structure of the labyrinth. Harbison goes on to explain that this particular labyrinth is the only church example to contain a minotaur, thus linking it to the manuscript The Liber Floridus of Lambert of Saint-Omer. The presence of this minotaur in the labyrinth within the context of a religious building reflects attitudes of the reformers of the church in the twelfth century. It is a figure which they can incorporate into Christian teaching to warn of the darker side of the human existence. Harbison describes the minotaur as “being the offspring of an illicit and unnatural union” and so it is a perfect representation of a malevolent force.
Saint Patricks Cross is now housed indoors in the Hall of Vicars Choral while a replica stands in its place outside.