Bagpipe Carvings from Northern France


Like many members of the Bagpipe Society I find myself searching for representations of bagpipers whenever I have visited an old building. This has become a part of our holiday outings wherever we travel and borders on an obsession. Sadly the search is often fruitless or the piper so inaccessible that any chance a photographic record beyond my camera’s capability. This summer was different as the bagpipers were accessible and the camera up to the job. We spent a couple of weeks in the north of France and found pipers in Amiens, Chartres and St Quentin.

As Mary and I live in Kent and have owned a small cottage in the Somme battlefields for twenty years we have made many visits to Amiens cathedral. I knew that there were some bagpipers there through Jean Luc Matte’s excellent website Iconographie de la Cornemuse – Inventaire des Representations Conservée en France, but had never been able to find them. I have searched many times for the stone carving of a piper on the south tower but have never been able to find it. I knew that there was a wooden carving of a piper in the choir stalls but these are not usually open to the public. About six months ago I discovered that

at three thirty each day there is a guided

tour, in French, of the choir stalls. This

July we managed to return and take the


The wooden choir stalls date from 1508-1522 and are well preserved. They are a masterpiece carved in local oak. As well as presenting bible stories in beautiful detail they are a snapshot of life in Amiens in the early 16th Century. As we entered the choir there was a large panel depicting the nativity. Knowing that this was a likely place to find a piper, I studied it carefully but was disappointed. The disappointment was short lived when I found the piper shown on Iconographie de la Cornemuse. Beingpartofanarmrest this carving has suffered over the years and the blowpipe, drone end, and chanter bell are all missing.

A little further on I found another piper in a group of angelic musicians in the margins of a large panel that formed one of the choir master’s stalls. The main panels depict the birth of the Virgin Mary an important figure in medieval Christianity. There are eight little cherubs among the arches above the panels playing shawm, portative organ, harp, fiddle and citole as well as our piper. The figure is just a couple of inches high but the single drone pipes are intact.

The guide, M. Macrez, is a real

enthusiast of the carvings rather than an

academic and his tour reflects this. He points

out that if you look under the table of the

wedding feast of Canna you will see

perfectly carved sandals on the feet of the

guests, even though you need to get down on

your hands and knees with a torch to see

them. He will tell you that Amiens cathedral

is much bigger that Notre Dame in Paris and

proudly remembers meeting Joffre and De

Gaulle. He is a story teller of some skill and

likes to tease his audience at times. As we

came to the end of the tour he showed us the

choir screen on the other side of the choir.

This showed scenes from the life of the

Virgin Mary including her death. He asked us why the four figures at the back of the scene were higher than all the others. He got a number of suggestions and then told us the answer. The four were standing on a bench. He asked us to look at the back of the panel. This was on the inside of the choir and showed the four men standing on tip toes and looking through the window into the scene on the other side.

This gave me an idea about the nativity scenes. Was there a piper on the back? Viewed from the front one of the shepherds is clearly shouting over the stable to someone behind. When I looked at the back of the panel there were shepherds there too. At the foot of the panel is a shepherd boy sitting on the ground playing his pipes and taking no interest in the scene on the other side. This carving is in almost perfect condition. The pipes again have a single drone in two sections and a conically bored chanter. Both chanter and drone have flared bells.

Later in our trip we spent a couple of

days in Chartres. I knew that there was a

musicians gallery on the west door as there is

a CD of music played on instruments

reconstructed from the carvings. Sadly

ongoing restoration work prevented us from

seeing these on this visit but will provide an

excellent excuse to return. The 13th century

stained glass is spectacular and fantastically

well preserved. I was sure that we would find

some musicians and hopefully some

bagpipers there but that too will have to wait

for another visit. I did find a bagpiper in the

first panel of the 16th century stone choir

screen. This depicts an angel announcing the

conception of the Virgin Mary to her father

Joachim. Nearby sits a shepherd playing

bagpipes. There is a single drone in two parts

and a flared bell. Sadly the lower part of the chanter is missing.

We have driven past St. Quentin many times over the years but never stopped. Its basilica stands out against the skyline and we had often wondered if it was worth a visit. We decided that this year we would check it out. As we made our way through the town we arrived at the main square and were immediately impressed by the Hotel de Ville. The original part of the building was completed in 1505 and has a wonderful carillion and an impressive flamboyant Gothic façade. You can sit under its arches and watch the world go by. There is a high density of carvings including angels, animals real and fantastic, decent townspeople and the local yobs flashing their bare buttocks to the people below. Among this richness are two bagpipers. One forms the capital of one of the columns and is badly weathered. The pipes are missing both blowpipe and chanter but have an impressively chunky drone. At the top of each arch of the arcade sits a musician angel. The second bagpiper is one of these. He plays mouth blown single drone pipes with flared bells. His companions play shawm, fiddle, horn, flute and harp.

The Basilica of Saint Quentin was built between the 12th and 16th centuries and has suffered badly from the ravages of time. In common with many French churches it was damaged during the revolution. During the First World War it was damaged by shellfire when the roof was lost and much of the woodwork destroyed. Reconstruction work did not finish until 1956.

My search for bagpipers started

with the arches around the doors as this is often where musicians are to be found. Sadly while there were some musician angels including a shawm player, psaltery player and recorder player the others were so damaged it was not possible to be sure what they were playing. One of the damaged musicians appears to have a bag under his arm but there is no blowpipe, drone or chanter to confirm the identification. The interior is fascinating, especially the choir which has bowed pillars showing several stages of reinforcement. The constant danger of collapse was the reason it took 300 years to complete the building. The choir has medieval music painted on the walls but I could find no bagpipers there. As we were leaving we took a walk around the outside and there I found the last of our bagpipers. Forming the base of a niche that once held a statue is an angel playing a double chanter bagpipe. The pipes are mouth blown and have unequal chanters set in an eagle headed stock. There also appears to be an improbably short drone over the angel’s shoulder. This angel is one of a number of well preserved sculptures on the outside of the building and the contrast with those on the door arches left me wondering if they formed part of the restoration work. I would like to think not.

As I prepared this article and looked again at all my discoveries I was reminded of the warnings in previous Chanter articles on making assumptions about the accuracy of artistic representations of bagpipes. In all of the examples above the composition of the scene is clearly more important than the representation of the bagpipes. In most cases the pipes and pipers are designed to fit the space available. Drones seem to be especially vulnerable to shortening for artistic reasons and playing positions uncomfortable to say the least. Having said that I enjoyed the search and was pleased to add to my collection of images of pipes and pipers.

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