By Emily Wolfe
At 60 feet in diameter, the twisting, circular stone pathway at Chatham University’s Shadyside campus is the largest outdoor labyrinth in Pittsburgh. The entrance to the circle—which is also the exit—faces Berry Hall, Chatham’s admissions building, on Woodland Road, while a plaque nearby tells the visitor the labyrinth is dedicated to Jessica Davant, a Pittsburgh native who passed away in 2006. Although “labyrinth” is sometimes used as a synonym for “maze,” this traditional pathway design should not be confused for a maze with forks and dead ends. There are no decision points; the path leads the visitor on a slow, winding journey to the center, turning back on itself several dozen times before opening out onto the six-petaled rosette at the heart of the labyrinth.
The labyrinth was endowed by Davant’s family and installed in 2008. A plaque near the entrance reads, “This labyrinth is dedicated, with love, to Jessica Davant.” Although the labyrinth was designed by a graduate student in Chatham’s landscape architecture program, the pattern dates back to the 12th century or before. Humans began creating early labyrinths close to 4,000 years ago, and early versions of the “Chartres labyrinth” design seen at Chatham can be found in medieval churches across Italy and France—most famously inside the Chartres Cathedral outside of Paris. The labyrinth at Chatham, although larger than the one at Chartres, is an identical replica of the cathedral’s floor, down to the scalloped, petal-like pattern at its edge and center.
Today, pilgrims continue to travel to Chartres to walk the labyrinth while engaged in meditation or prayer. Some scholars believe the center of the labyrinth at Chartres once contained an image of the minotaur, which was famously caged in a labyrinth in Greek myth. This would not be unusual: though distinctly Christian in nature, medieval labyrinths were often marked with text or imagery referencing the minotaur and its defeat at the hands of the Greek hero Theseus, sometimes linking the battle to the story of Christ’s victory over death.
Neither Chatham University nor Jessica’s Labyrinth has any specific religious affiliation, but the site is intended to function as a space where visitors can think, pray, or meditate. While signage at the site does not mention the meditative aspect, a meditative walk through a labyrinth is an ancient tradition, with three customary stages: “releasing” the worries of the outside world during the walk to the center, “receiving” peace at the center of the labyrinth, and ultimately “returning” to the world, altered by the experience. Like the labyrinth at Chartres, Jessica’s Labyrinth continues to get its share of pilgrims, and although not widely known, the spot sometimes earns a place on lists of best locations for meditation in Pittsburgh.
“Berry Hall,” Emily Wolfe. A picture taken from the far edge of the labyrinth with Berry Hall shown in the background.
“Italian Labyrinths.” Loyola University Chicago. https://www.luc.edu/medieval/labyrinths/labyrinths_italian.shtml. Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.
“Jessica’s Labyrinth.” Chatham University. Internet Archive, 4 Feb. 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20170204002143/https://www.chatham.edu/about/labyrinth/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.
“Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral.” Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/labyrinth-chartres-cathedral. Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.
How to Cite
MLA: Wolfe, Emily. “Jessica’s Labyrinth.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, 5 November 2020, https://religyinz.pitt.edu/jessicas-labyrinth/.
APA: Wolfe, Emily. (2020, November 5). Jessica’s Labyrinth. ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/jessicas-labyrinth/.
Chicago: Wolfe, Emily. “Jessica’s Labyrinth.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, 5 November 2020. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/jessicas-labyrinth/.