Marigolds and mazes

Kingcups or marsh marigolds, Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. © C A Lovegrove

Amongst burgeoning green and accents of blue – from pale forget-me-not, Germander Speedwell and Spanish bluebells for instance – spring (for me at any rate) primarily displays a riot of rich buttery gold. There are the now fading daffodils “that come before the swallow dares,” as Shakespeare wrote, and his “cuckoo-buds of yellow hue” which might well be buttercups; also showy insect-friendly dandelions with their lion’s teeth leaves, cowslips multiplying in a local graveyard, stellar celandines carpeting footpath verges … and, especially on the banks of the local canal, cheery kingcups bursting out in bunches by the water’s margins.

The kingcups particularly take me back a half century to when I used to be part of an amateur Arthurian group based in the West Country. Back then, in an editorial from its magazine Pendragon in November 1971, the Pendragon Society’s Honorary Secretary wrote the following:

“Can anyone, please, help us to trace this quotation to its source?
‘Where in the likeness of a marigold Meridianes [sic] sitteth in a maze.’
The only clue we have is that the elderly lady who quotes it to us, and who is now cut off from her former library, has always been a great reader of medieval books.”

Pendragon Vol 5 No 3

The source of this reference was never traced, and even that great virtual library in the sky, namely Google, has come up with absolutely zilch five decades later. But of course all that hasn’t stopped me speculating what these lines might possibly mean; which has then led me on an exploration of Meridianus, marigolds, and mazes.

The so-called marigold pattern

Meridianus is Latin, an adjective meaning “related to midday,” and by extension “on the south side, southern” (indicating a viewpoint in the northern hemisphere); the south of France is called the Midi for this very reason. The modern term ‘meridian’ now refers to the highest point in the sky, the zenith, attained by the sun, star or planet. In this quote, then, Meridianus is the personification of the midday sun – but in what way is it like a marigold?

The marigold, especially the pot marigold calendula officinalis, is a member of the daisy family, often used in medicinal preparations and for culinary purposes. Associated with the Virgin Mary, to whom the month of May is traditionally dedicated, it visually recalls other daisies if it wasn’t for its rich creamy hue. But it’s not the only flower known by that name: there’s also the marsh marigold, which I’ve already mentioned in referring to its alternative name, “kingcup”. The marsh marigold belongs to the buttercup family and displays five – and often six – enlarged golden sepals. It’s the marsh marigold that I think this anonymous quote refers to, as I’ll now argue.

As I recall, it was Nora Chadwick who, in her classic Celtic Britain (1965), illustrated what she called a conventional ‘marigold design’. This six-sided geometric figure – carved, for example, on an early medieval cross slab on the Isle of Man¹ and carved as an apotropaic ‘witch mark’ in the later medieval period – can be, when inscribed within a circle, drawn by anyone with a pair of compasses.

It neatly demonstrates various features, such as six vesica piscis (fish bladder or vesicle) figures. The vesica is a lentoid symbol typically made from the intersection of two circles with the same radius, where the centre of each circle lies on the circumference of the other. In religious iconography it’s also known as a mandorla (almond), either shown horizontally as a lentoid halo over a holy person or vertically enclosing said individual.

Rose window, west front of Chartres Cathedral

Geometrically this ‘marigold’ pattern, termed a hexafoil, can be when further subdivided into twelve sections used in planning clockfaces, laying out zodiac symbols, or designing rose windows. The great ecclesiastical buildings of the medieval period – cathedrals and abbeys – often featured these magnificent circular traceried lights filled with stained glass, with structures like France’s Abbey of St-Denis and Chartres Cathedral leading the way.

Rose windows (‘rose’ perhaps a misnomer, as that five-petalled flower is in fact a cinquefoil) bring to mind those large substitutes for pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, the floor tile labyrinths and mazes found in the major cathedrals of Northern France – those of Rheims and Amiens, for example – which, in having a single route to the centre, may be termed unicursal. The one in the nave at Chartres (which I’ve personally treaded) measures over forty feet or nearly 13 metres across; it’s the largest medieval church labyrinth ever constructed, and consists of twelve concentric circles. These pathways are sometimes claimed to represent the twelve zodiacal signs or months, thus implying that the pilgrim partakes of the properties of each on his or her journey to the centre.

Unicursal floor maze, Chartres Cathedral

And what lies at the very centre of the Chartres labyrinth? In technical language it’s a six-petalled or six-lobed rosette, confusingly also referred to as a hexafoil (literally meaning “six-leaved”) though the basis of its design is different from the one based on the vesica. This Chartres rosette resembles even more closely the outline of our marsh marigold flower.

Back in the late sixties and seventies the Pendragon Society was as much drawn to more esoteric ideas as to the more conventional historical and literary aspects of what used to be called the Matter of Britain – insular literature and lore directly or tangentially related to Arthurian legends. So as well as being involved in, say, archaeological excavations members would peruse curious titles such as Le Mystère Des Cathédrales: Esoteric Interpretation of the Hermetic Symbols of the Great Work (by an alchemist of the modern era, the simply-styled Fulcanelli) or a translation of Les Mystères de la Cathédrale de Chartres by Louis Charpentier. We would also have talks with and from a range of experts, mystics and gurus, including the late Keith Critchlow, architect and self-styled geometer. It was Critchlow who introduced us to the sacred geometry of buildings such as Chartres.

Among many things he pointed out was that if the west front of that cathedral (including the rose window) could be, as it were, folded and laid down the nave the window would exactly cover the maze. Or, if there were a bright enough light source – maybe the sun before it set in the summer – the coloured image of the twelve-sectioned rose could be shone onto the twelve paths of the labyrinth.

However, the meridian being the position of the midday sun, Chartres’ west window doesn’t really allow Meridianus to be seated “as a marigold” in the maze. Unfortunately neither does the midday sun shining through the south transept rose correspond, because the labyrinth itself doesn’t actually lie under the central crossing. Remembering that the quotation appears to be in the kind of English current in the 16th or early 17th century, it might be that in some church in Britain or at some other northerly latitude had all the requirements for the correct positioning of celestial object with marigold window and observer at the centre of the maze.

South transept rose window, Chartres Cathedral, early 13th century

The ancient ‘marigold’ pattern, echoing those other natural patterns of snowflake and honeycomb, was evidently the basis for later three-dimensional edifices: for instance, when I lived in Bristol I could see it in the vaulting of the hexagonal north porch of St Mary Redcliffe, part of a medieval shrine for a relic of the Virgin Mary. But I have yet to come across a structure that gives us the required meridian / marigold / maze combination. Maybe 21st-century social media – or someone reading this post – will come up with some answers for who originally wondered “… where in the likeness of a marigold Meridianus sitteth in a maze.”

In the meantime, whatever the solution might be, I shall enjoy the gleam of kingcups for as long as they last, before the emerging fleur de lys, the yellow iris, takes their place.

St Irneit cross slab, Maughold, Isle of Man, 7th century

¹ Kirk Maughold in the Isle of Man has an important collection of early medieval crosses and cross slabs. One side of Irneit’s Cross (7th century, numbered No 47) displays what’s described as “a six sided cross within a bordered circle, a form derived from the Chi-Rho symbol,” elsewhere as “a six sided daisy style cross set in a circle,” and by Elizabeth Rees (2003:187-8) as a hexafoil cross “resembling a six-petalled flower […] found in sub-Roman Britain and Gaul.” This is the Chadwick marigold that first set me on this cryptic hunt.

Adapted and mightily expanded from a short article I wrote in Pendragon in November 1973

  • Jess Foster. 1971. ‘News, Views and Prognostications.’ Pendragon,Vol 5 No 3. November 1971.
  • Dr Levi Fox. 1977. An illustrated introduction to Shakespeare’s flowers. Jarrold Colour Publications. 
  • Margaret and Chris Lovegrove. 1973. ‘Mizmazes and Marigolds.’ Pendragon; the Journal of the Pendragon Society, Vol 7 No 3, November 1973.
  • Wolfgang Lippert, Dieter Podlech, translated and adapted by Martin Walters. 1994. Wild Flowers of Britain & Europe. Collins Nature Guide, HarperCollins Publishers, 1994. 
  • Elizabeth Rees. 2003. An Essential Guide to Celtic Sites and their Saints. Burns & Oates.

10 thoughts on “Marigolds and mazes

    1. Yes, as the merry month of May is traditionally ascribed to Mary I expect the appearance of mary-golds in this month may have a bearing on their name, Nick. But it’s the literary context of the quote that is the biggest mystery. I am hoping that the more academic of those who read this may spot where it’s from, possibly an Elizabethan or Jacobean metaphysical poet like Donne or Henry Vaughan. 🙂


  1. Pingback: Marigolds and mazes – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. jjlothin

    A wonderful piece of investigative scholarship, even if the mystery remains unsolved! And coincidentally, I ordered a tube of calendula ointment this very morning – having no idea it’s derived from marigolds …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very kind of you to say so, JJ, even if I’m no closer to solving the riddle! I hold out hope though that something may yet come through.

      We have a lot of time for calendula ointment too, and always have at least one tube to hand. The word means ‘little calendar’ though it’s not clear why, as its flowering period continues through much of the year. In the middle ages the plant’s name in England was apparently simply ‘golde’.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        The etymology of ‘calendula’ – another unsolved mystery … My tube has just arrived – appropriately from the excellent Helios Homeopathy, given that Helios=sun, and “Marigolds were often linked to the powerful strength of the sun” … You’ve got me at it now!

        Liked by 1 person

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