In the historical center of Alatri, the ancient cloister of the church of San Francesco from about the 13th century keeps a unique surprise of Christ in a Labyrinth.
Over the centuries the cloister has also housed a prison and a law court, and only during the restoration of 1996 was the discovery made below the church of a fresco of a mysterious labyrinth on the wall, in the centre of which is a representation of Christ, and several other symbols. Nobody had ever talked about this work
The large labyrinth is unicursal (there is only one entrance and only one exit at the center and to reach it there is only one path) has a size of the outer circle of about 140 cm and consists of twelve concentric circles black and white. The black circles represent the walls that delimit the corridors and there are eleven plus the central circle, the one where the Christ is.
The Christ has a halo and holds a book with the left hand (placed almost in correspondence with the heart) while the right hand, whose fingers are bent in the sign of blessing, indicates the entrance (or exit) of the labyrinth.
The frescoed wall with the “Christ in the Labyrinth” looks south.
So, the entrance to the Alatri labyrinth is located to the west (to the left of the observer) and the exit faces east. In practice it is oriented in the same way as the vast majority of churches and Christian cathedrals.
You enter coming from where the sun sets, from the darkness, and you start in the direction in which it rises, towards the Light.
The greatness of the work and the fact that it is placed at the top of the wall, would let it be understood that it was designed to be seen even from a certain distance. Perhaps it decorated a large hall of worship or, more likely, the Chapter House of the religious building preceding the current structure.
Almost nothing is known about this work of art. Archival research has confirmed that no one had ever talked about it in the centuries-old story of Alatri, until its random discovery in the 90s.
The best expert of Alatri’s “Christ in the labyrinth” is Giancarlo Pavat, a labyrinth researcher accredited at European level and in 2007 he described it in his book “Valcento – the Monastic-knightly orders in southern Lazio “and in 2009 Pavat realized that it was identical to the one that decorates the floor of the nave of the cathedral of Chartres, the “Cathedral of the Mystery” par excellence, in France.
Obviously, we talk about the identity of the path, not the form and these labyrinths are defined as “Chartres-type”, “Model Chartres” and 29 * have been now cataloged. The labyrinth of Chartres should date back to the first half of the 13th century, while “Chartres-type” specimens appear on manuscripts and illuminated codices as early as the 10th century.
The fresco of Alatri’s labyrinth is unique in the world for the figure of the “historical Christ” at the centre, a type of representation not attested before the 4th century AD. The authors are not known but the study of the other decorations (“Flowers of Life”, “Triple Circumferences”, “Spirals”, “Stars” etc.) tends to attribute it to the Order of the “Pauperes Commilitiones Christi Templique Salomonici”, better known as Knights Templar.
The Templars were very present in Alatri between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries and numerous symbols were identified as some “Croci Patenti” frescoes in various medieval churches of Alatri. Like the one in red and inscribed in a frescoed circle on the counter-façade of the church of San Francesco, near the cloister with the Labyrinth, or the red one visible in the church of San Silvestro, painted on the beard of a mysterious and hieratic haloed character. Also at the Porta di San Sebastiano, there was a hospice for pilgrims that the local tradition identifies as a “Hospitales” of the Order.
But it is also true that other monastic orders such as Cistercians and Franciscans used these symbols.
The unicursal labyrinths are those where there is only one entrance and only one exit at the centre and to reach it there is only one path and their purpose is not to sort out between various optional ways but to make only once all the various twists and turns.
Spiral after spiral, the path approaches and moves away from the centre. Rhythmically, as if it were really a dance, the sinuous, harmonious path leads the wayfarer who enters it, along a path that could represent the allegory of the path of everyday life, but also of the arduous and complex search for Truth with the initial a capitalised letter.
In this labyrinth there is no fear of taking the wrong path, of confusing oneself, those who face it have only two possibilities: follow its twists and turns until the end, confident that it will reach the centre (where, in this case, Christ in person awaits him) or turn around.
Go back by deliberately renouncing the objective to reach the centre: ‘it means choosing Evil. Without even the excuse of the doubt about which path to take, that exists in the “multi-disciplinary” labyrinth’, then Perdition is chosen, Salvation by the Saviour himself is refused.
The confident abandonment to the path of the “unicursal” labyrinth bears witness to a profession of faith, based on total and serene abandonment to a Higher Will. Certain, not only of His infallibility, but also of His infinite goodness and mercy in taking care of our creatures. Rock.hard convictions, typical of the members of the Regular Monastic Orders and of the Hospitallers and Military Knightly Orders.
The work of art of the cloister of San Francesco speaks to us of a peculiarly medieval Christianity, based on certain symbologies that were deemed no longer appropriate with the Counter-Reformation.
The fresco and the labyrinth were probably not destroyed because in the centre there was Christ himself, but, anyway, they were carefully covered by the plaster and, to be certain, they erected a wall in front of it.
The message of the fresco of Alatri – “Christ in the Labyrinth” is a message of hope that transcends the purely artistic value and the Catholic doctrinal contents of the work.
The fresco makes us understand that no matter how long, tortuous, or difficult, the path of life, we will always find those who will reach out to help us, to show us the way, to show us the goal.
* The 29 ancient examples of “Chartres-type” are all in Europe, but some have only the graphic and literary documentation, having been destroyed. 10 are located or were in Italy (Pavia, Piacenza, Aulla, Pontremoli, Lucca, Volterra, Rome, Alatri and Tossicia), 13 in France (Chartres, Sens, Bayeux, Poitiers, Auxerre, Amiens, St, Quentin, Arras, Genainville, Sélestat, Mirapoix, Toulouse, 1 in Ireland (Rathmore in County Meath), 2 in Great Britain (Bristol, Alkborough), 2 in Russia (Ponoi River in the Kola Peninsula and Great Zaiatsky Island in the White Sea) and 1 in Sweden (Grinstad).