Most musicologists are blinkered souls (or whatever the right word might be: ear-plugged, perhaps)—so it was no great surprise that I knew nothing about labyrinths before reading The Maze and the Warrior by—and this was the surprise—another musicologist, Craig Wright of Yale University. Since then I have been to San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and walked through the labyrinth in the nave. Inside the church the labyrinth is woven on a large circular carpet; outside the church another labyrinth inlaid in the pavement can accommodate the overflow of seekers after repose and spiritual renewal. While I was there, a man brought candles to light at the labyrinth’s center, annoying the verger, and a woman told anyone who would listen about her on-site epiphanies. The walk was strangely agreeable. I could feel an attack coming of what Wright calls maze mania, a condition that has given us labyrinths in churches, hospitals, gymnasiums, airports, and prison yards, interfaith labyrinths, “maize mazes” on corn-lined acres in both America and France, a great deal of inspirational literature, and up to two hundred Web sites.

There were numerous brochures to pick up at the cathedral. I already had the comprehensive, endlessly fascinating book that Wright acknowledges and draws from, Through the Labyrinth by Hermann Kern, a book born, according to the prefatory matter, “from sheer enthusiasm within the American labyrinth community,” and “a source book for a new generation of labyrinth scholars and enthusiasts.”1 If a picture is worth a thousand words, the six hundred pictures in Kern’s book will fund an entire bibliography. There are diagrams, ground plans, and aerial views of walled mazes, hedged mazes, huge Roman mosaic pavement mazes, and delicate Scandinavian mazes which look from the air like skeins of natural-pearl necklaces, marked out on green areas by white stones. We visit dozens of floor labyrinths in churches and cathedrals, old and new. In a stunning twelve-inch color spread, the one in San Francisco looks almost like a mirror image of its much-admired prototype at Chartres, so closely was the one modeled on the other.

Kern’s book includes pictures of labyrinths from throughout the world: temple reliefs from India, Native American petroglyphs, stamped gold rings from Indonesia. Stamped on coins from Knossos is the stylized maze that glared at us for years from the cover of the journal Daedalus; it was the great inventor Daedalus, of course, who built the primal labyrinth of the Minotaur for Pasiphaë, as well as a “dancing floor” for her daughter Ariadne. An Etruscan wine jug shows Theseus emerging from the first, and a sixth-century Greek vase shows him presiding over the second. At the center of the labyrinths we see the Minotaur being slain by Theseus, or when Christianity has taken hold of the myth, the Devil slain again and again by the Christian Warrior in full armor.

“Surprisingly, almost all labyrinths to be seen in the West before the appearance of the Renaissance garden maze are unicursal”—that is, they provide a direct path, however tortuously it may turn, to the center and back out again. Unlike garden mazes, such as the maddeningly complex one at Hampton Court, to say nothing of the maze that Theseus could only manage with the aid of Ariadne’s golden thread, you cannot get lost in a unicursal labyrinth. “In a labyrinth, you do not lose yourself,” the lady told me at Grace Cathedral. “In a labyrinth, you find yourself.” Wright wonders why Theseus needed Ariadne’s clew. “The Hellenic poets created multicursal mazes, but the architects did not.” Kern, who distinguishes strictly between the multicursal maze and the unicursal labyrinth, has the perfect picture to show the difference, an aerial view of the adjacent maze and labyrinth installed at an English country house in 1977.

The Christian maze must be unicursal, and also recursive, for when the Warrior enters the twisting path to slay the Devil he has to be sure it gets him to the center, and it has to get him out again. The maze itself symbolizes an archetypal combat myth:

The myth of the maze expresses the eternal hope of salvation—that eternal life will be won for all by the actions of one savior. This warrior will defeat the forces of evil lurking in the center of the maze. The central malevolent power may be a bull, the Minotaur, Khumbaba, Typhon, Satan, or, by metaphorical extension, the wicked pharaoh of Egypt, the giant Goliath, or the menacing Turk. As for the hero of the maze, he has assumed many faces over time: those of Theseus, Jason, Gilgamesh, Hercules, Moses, David, Christ, St. Michael, Christian, Tamino, and the Armed Man. The name of this warrior may change, but he is inseparable from the maze. Every myth needs a hero.

Craig Wright surveys the labyrinth over the centuries with ears unplugged, listening for the music it inspired, and his account of this constitutes his signal contribution to labyrinth lore.


Actually, music does not come up in his book until about a third of the way in. This author does not skimp on detail, which he maneuvers beautifully, piling it on and pulling it back at the next helpful chapter subheading, keeping up the level of fascination until just before the eyes begin to glaze. He leads us almost punctiliously through every one of the sixteen churches that contain or are known to have contained labyrinths in North Africa, Italy, and France. He traces the theology of the labyrinth as it developed from broad outlines laid down by the Church Fathers to an elaborate, point-by-point articulation in a medieval commentary on Ovid. Like any powerful symbolic nexus, the labyrinth proliferates and entwines endlessly, figuring in the chapter subheadings as Symbol of Purgatory, Stage for the Harrowing of Hell, and Metaphor for the Sinful World. Theseus slays the Minotaur, the Warrior slays the Devil, Jesus travels to confront Satan in the wilderness and returns. Then Jesus embarks on his final circuit, Passion and Resurrection.

Hence the strong association of the labyrinth with Easter. The Redeemer is both “victorious warrior and sacrificial lamb.” Wright draws into the labyrinth complex the “bellicose” Lamb of God foretold by Isaiah, celebrated in Revelation, and invoked by some of the main Easter plainchants.


Homer’s account of Ariadne’s dancing floor is our earliest record of several labyrinth dances known from antiquity. Dancing is predicated on music, and the François Vase, painted a hundred years after Homer, shows Theseus at the post-Minotaur festivities playing a lyre. Dance was adopted by Christianity—the third-century Apocryphal Acts of St. John has Jesus leading a ring dance of his disciples on Good Friday—and ultimately Christian dances were channeled onto labyrinths, the dancing floors for special Easter celebrations by, principally, cathedral clergy. Why else would labyrinths have been inlaid in the naves of churches from at least the fourth century on (though there is a gap of seven hundred years between the still-surviving maze of St. Remartus in Algeria and the next known examples).

The most extensive archival record of this practice comes from Auxerre in the fifteenth century, thanks to documents showing complaints about costs run up by the annual dance with its appurtenances and indeed its decency, for the dance also entailed a game with a pilota, a soft ball shaped like our football, and things could get out of hand. The organ played, and it would appear that competing clerics maneuvered their way through the labyrinth while also singing “Victimae paschali laudes,” one of the great Easter plainchants. Many other ancient hymns and antiphons can be associated with Easter dances.

Other labyrinth-inspired music was specially written, both for use at church and for delectation at court. Among the organa—polyphonic compositions that embellished important plainchants—sung at Notre Dame Cathedral there is one in which a long tenor melody is first sung and then sung backward. While there is no explicit connection with labyrinths here—the chant comes at Christmas, not Easter—we soon accept that retrograde motion, the musical technique applied to the chant here, symbolizes the Warrior’s journey into the maze and out, and all its accompanying baggage. It may well resonate in Guillaume de Machaut’s rondeau “Ma fin est mon commencement,” which has generally been taken as a rather dazzling technical demonstration of musical retrograding and not much more. Machaut (1300–1377), a canon of Reims, asked to be buried near the cathedral’s labyrinth, and every year at a special Easter ceremony he sang about Alpha and Omega, commencement and fin, beginning and end, in a local antiphon. He modeled his Remède de Fortune on the demonstrably (indeed avowedly) labyrinthine Consolations of Philosophy of Boethius.

Next to the Machaut mass, “Ma fin est mon commencement” is the most famous composition by this famous poet-musician, but it is only one piece.2 Wright extends his inquiry substantially when he links the labyrinth to a major phenomenon of music in the later, waning Middle Ages: the widespread composition of L’Homme armé masses.

As background: the mass as we know it today, with its conjoined Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, emerged as a major development in music from around 1450 on. It is, Wright might say, a recursive cycle: prayer, hymn, creed, hymn, prayer. The mass became a prototype for imposing, large-scale composition, the first such in music, comparable to the symphony in another age. Of several ways that composers found to “unify” the cycle, the most productive was to base all five mass segments on a single melody of one kind or another, which could be treated to various technical manipulations. Among the earliest mass cycles, one attributed to Guillaume Dufay (circa 1398–1474) is based on a long, involuted melody extracted from an even longer plainchant, the Missa Caput, and this served as a model for Caput masses by Johannes Ockeghem and Jacob Obrecht, later masters. Another Dufay mass uses a blindingly simple, seemingly popular song about the military, “L’Homme armé.” The song is transmitted in a far-from-simple chanson which was probably concocted by Antoine Busnoys (circa 1440–1492), a notably intellectual musician favored by Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Dufay was a Beethoven figure for the fifteenth century.


And once “L’homme armé” found religion, as it were, it replicated itself like a virus in masses by more than thirty composers over the next century. On CDs alone one can find examples by Dufay, Busnoys, Ockeghem, Johannes Regis, Johannes Tinctoris, Obrecht, Josquin Desprez, Matthaeus Pipelare (on Sony Vivarte), Pierre de la Rue, Robert Carver, Cristobel de Morales, and Palestrina (Naxos). These are big, big a cappella pieces; Josquin wrote two L’Homme armé masses, one lasting for thirty-five minutes and the other for thirty-eight. “The Armed Man, the Armed Man, the Armed Man: beware of the Armed Man”: Why should this decidedly raucous song have led to a major church-music repertory including, I hasten to say, some very beautiful music?

It is not Craig Wright’s mission to explain the astonishing career of the L’Homme armé mass, but he has plenty to say about its origins and its symbolism. The Armed Man is the Christian Warrior of the Maze. His recursive journey is symbolized in the Agnus Dei of the Missa L’Homme armé of Dufay, where the tune appears in retrograde motion; the Agnus Dei prays to the sacrificial and bellicose Lamb of Easter.3 The Warrior hovers behind the music of other L’Homme armé masses, and one heavily annotated manuscript invokes him directly: Christ is the “potent armorer of man, giver of arms by which man triumphs over the enemy and chases away the Devil,” and the Armed Man, “as before he marched forth, [now] he goes backward…the end corresponds to the beginning.” The composer and annotator of this highly unusual manuscript is thought to have been Busnoys.

The Armed Man can also be identified as a knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, that fantastic brainchild of Philip the Good of Burgundy anatomized memorably by Huizinga in The Waning of the Middle Ages. Over the last few decades musicologists have joined and jostled in a determined campaign to lay “L’Homme armé” to rest; a gun smoked for Richard Taruskin when he noted segments of several L’Homme armé masses laid out in thirty-one-bar units, thirty-one being the canonical number of knights of the Fleece at that time…and also the number of turns in the canonical labyrinth.4 As Wright remarks, it can be no coincidence that “the Christian Image of the Armed Man, then nearly fifteen hundred years old, was given musical expression for the first time immediately after the fall of Constantinople”; after that calamity Charles the Bold reconvened the knights at a music-drenched Feast of the Pheasant to launch a new crusade against the Turk. According to Wright, Jason and the Argonauts slip comfortably enough into labyrinth lore. Quest and salvation myths conflate.

The Armed Man is also the priest officiating at mass. Recently it has been pointed out that for centuries priests in that capacity had pictured themselves enthusiastically as Christian warriors. At certain special masses in certain churches, armor was worn and swords brandished by priests, other clerics, and attendant dignitaries.5

Although the later proliferation of L’Homme armé masses does not fall within the purview of The Maze and the Warrior, it has attracted the greatest interest since it came to light in the nineteenth century. There are numerous small complexes like the Caput masses in which composers enlarged on other composers’ ideas, competing in “friendly aemulation” (a nice formulation of Henry Peacham, a seventeenth-century musical amateur), but there is only one aggregate like the L’Homme armé masses. “L’Homme armé” served as dissertation or Habilitation for generations of composers, who outdid themselves with retrogrades, inversions, singing the core melody in different tempos, keys, and modes, breaking it up according to arcane codes, combining it with other melodies, reproducing it (or them) in various canons, and more. These Künste der Niederländer, as the early German musicologists called them—only vaguely aware of the composers’ origins, they called them “Netherlanders” rather than Burgundians and Flemings since the Netherlands seemed more Teutonic, closer to J.S. Bach—these “Netherlandish artifices” astonished, fascinated, awed, and also repelled, for they ran so counter to the Romantic ideal of musical creation. Nineteenth-century scholars had enough trouble deciphering old music, let alone getting anyone to sing it so they could hear it and judge it on its own sonorous merits. They did not have access to CDs.

Finally the L’Homme armé masses lost their rationale, but failed to go gracefully. In the sixteenth century there were stragglers from as far away as Scotland, and the seventeenth century witnessed a truly Baroque coup de grâce in a twelve-part entry by Giacomo Carissimi, a composer noted otherwise for his oratorios and cantatas. By then the highly developed, esoteric, inbred sense of competition and technical display represented by “L’Homme armé” had also run its course in another musical genre: the English In Nomine, also an outgrowth of the fifteenth-century mass tradition.

In England the last great pinnacle of that tradition was the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas by John Taverner, who may have written it for the meeting of monarchs at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.6 Soon enough after that the mass received a death sentence in England, first under Edward VI and then Elizabeth I, after a few years’ reprieve under Queen Mary. Yet the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas experienced a ghoulish afterlife starting in just those turbulent years. A fragment of it found its way without the words into manuscripts of instrumental music, and around this fragment sprang up over 150 short works for a consort of viols, all based on Taverner’s core melody. Nearly sixty composers were involved, over a hundred-year period.

That core melody, the antiphon Gloria tibi Trinitas—a long plainchant, very much like that of the Caput masses—is heard most clearly in the Taverner mass at the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (in the Sanctus); this explains the name In Nomine. All the great names in Tudor church music after Taverner composed pieces in this genre: Christopher Tye, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and Orlando Gibbons. “Friendly aemulation” runs riot; the In Nomines of William Byrd dilate upon those of his friends Robert Parsons and Alfonso Ferrabosco, and so on. The In Nomine breathed its last in a seven-part marvel by Henry Purcell, though in our own time Peter Maxwell Davies seems determined to resuscitate it (in his opera Taverner and other works).


Ariadne: she makes one vivid appearance early in Wright’s narrative, dancing with Theseus on the labyrinth floor of Daedalus. She has no Christian counterpart in the Easter dances and symbolic masses of the Middle Ages. But in 1608 the deserted Ariadne bursts on stage again with a searing lament-cum-deprecation which ignited the emerging genre of opera. Every music rack in Italy is said to have borne a copy of “Lasciatemi morire,” the lament from Monteverdi’s opera Arianna, and Monteverdi followed it up with similar set pieces for the aggrieved women of his later masterworks, Penelope in Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and Octavia in L’incoronazione di Poppea. He also wrote a madrigal which qualifies as a dramatic scene, “The Lament of the Nymph,” where the Nymph’s quite excruciating song is framed and interrupted by male voyeurs—a musical analogue to Bernini’s Saint Theresa—and underpinned by an endlessly repeated descending scale pattern in the bass. This hypnotic musical device, often intensified by chromatic steps, became the standard topos, or convention, for musical lamentation operatic and nonoperatic. A well-known example is the Crucifixus from Bach’s B-minor Mass.

So as with L’Homme armé masses and In Nomines, if more dramatically as befits the age of the Baroque, there was a musical thread and perhaps a sense of paragone (comparison, competition) running through the prima-donna scenes that became staples and indeed epitomes of seventeenth-century opera. Hecuba, Cassandra, Dido, and Alcestis cast a backward glance or two as they keen and vent and warble with these descending basses as their safety net. The most famous of their arias is Dido’s lament, “When I am laid in earth,” from Dido and Aeneas by Purcell, who drew on another composer’s work for the unusual form of its chromatic bass—unusual, and unusually expressive, by the time Purcell had got through with it.7

You can read through The Maze and the Labyrinth with reasonable care without picking up on any recursive journeys that turn out badly, but early opera tells it like it is. The final number for Orpheus in Monteverdi’s La favola d’Orfeo is the lament of a hero of unconfirmed warrior status, armed only with a lyre.


Wright casts his net wide in a final chapter, “Musical Mazes from Moses to Mozart.” Through the centuries, he says, musicians have made musical mazes in three ways, by “duplicating a labyrinthine pattern, recreating the psychological states of a labyrinth, or setting part of the myth to music.” These are broad criteria, and some of his examples are tendentious. In any case, after the Renaissance the symbolism of the maze mutates, becomes diffused, and loses much of its force: “Along with saintly relics and old bishops’ bones, the stones of the labyrinth were thrown upon the rubbish pile of Enlightenment disbelief.” As compared to the material earlier in the book, Wright’s later examples of labyrinth music form a fairly arbitrary sequence.

Still, all of them are—that word again—fascinating, and one item is too good not to mention: an opera by Peter Winter, a contemporary of Mozart, for the theater run by Mozart’s friend Emanuel Schikaneder, the instigator, librettist, producer, and original cast member of The Magic Flute. Schika-neder could count on that opera’s enormous success for years after its première, and his libretto for Winter’s The Labyrinth brings back the same characters and basically the same story, but with an interminable labyrinth journey substituted for Mozart’s Trials of Fire and Water.8 Mozart’s Masonic imagery meets the myth of the labyrinth. Like Orpheus, the hero of The Magic Flute casts his lot with music, not might—Schikaneder makes a point of this by starting the opera with Tamino in full flight from a dragon, bow in hand, empty quiver at his side; but at the end of Winter’s opera Tamino battles a new character, Tipheus, one-on-one, and “as Christ did to Satan at the end of the Book of Apocalypse, casts him down into a fiery pit.” The show was so successful that Schikaneder ran it on alternate nights with The Magic Flute.

Craig Wright concludes his study with Winter’s opera, around 1800, and one can see why. Modern music of the labyrinth has become dissonant and ravenous; in Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden—“knot garden” is an English word for maze—the polymorphous labyrinth myth of salvation takes in sex, identity, forgiveness, psychotherapy, leitmotifs, and the blues. Not a place where a prudent writer wants to go.

The Maze and the Warrior is quite a book. The author wears his great learning with great lightness. Needless to say he has built upon many studies of the labyrinth less glamorous and more specialized than that of Hermann Kern, and has carried out new archival research, as appears from the endnotes.9 Medievalists are the mandarins of musicology, the highest of the high-powered, but Wright is not the only one of them with an enviable track-record as a writer for nonspecialists. Although he has fashioned this book for general readers rather than musicologists and musicians, it has prompted one specialist reviewer to call for nothing less than a “new appraisal of the history and historiography of Western music, one more cognizant of myth, belief, and symbol as generative forces in human creativity.”10 If this appeal to the clerisy can be scaled down a little, it can also become an appeal to the laity. For all the earplug-defying ubiquity of music in modern life, one cannot be sure that most people understand how much there is to it below, or beyond, the sonorous surface.

This Issue

June 24, 2004