This article by Douglas Yeo was first published in "Transpositions," Volume 1, Number 1, May 2001, the
Journal of the
Christian Performing Artists Fellowship
© 2002 Douglas Yeo. All Rights Reserved.
Author Jules Verne lived there for much of his adult life and died there in 1905; it is also the capital city of the province of Picardie. But this notable literary and political history is dwarfed by the fact that Amiens, 90 minutes by train north of Paris, is the home of France's largest Gothic cathedral. Rising up out of a vast low plain, construction on this remarkable structure began in 1220, making it the last of the great trio of French high-Gothic cathedrals (including Chartres, 1194, and Reims, 1211) to be built.
To encounter Notre Dame d'Amiens, which boasts as its most precious relic the head of St. John the Baptist (1), is to be removed to another time altogether. Its sheer size is enormous, and nearly overwhelming when considering that it was constructed without the aid of modern construction equipment. Entering the nave through the west portal (which depicts the last judgment of Christ) a sense of spaciousness and majesty is immediately conveyed, from the intricate mosaic labyrinth of the tiled floor to cascading light flooding through buttresses. To walk down the nave toward the choir and high altar is something that can only be done with a sense of awe, and in silence, as you are acutely aware that you are in a space which was constructed to be a tabernacle for the One True God. In the choir are the most exquisitely carved stalls in the world, with over 4,000 Biblical and secular characters representing scenes both from the Bible and everyday life (2).
Gothic cathedrals. There is nothing like them in the world. They fire our imaginations with images of gargoyles, towers, crypts and mysterious legends. But what can a building built 800 years ago really say to us in the 21st century? We live today in a 6000 channel universe where we are not easily impressed, where the old is minute by minute supplanted by the new. What is required to appreciate such a building is a suspension of time, and the ability to stand patiently still as one considers what it was like to live at the time these great edifices were built. A time without electricity, or Dockers trousers; no skateboards or Ford Mustangs. And a time where disease was rampant, each day brought with it struggles which could lead to either life or death, and God was a very important - even the essential - part of everyday life.
Construction of a new cathedral, which was to be the very house of God, was not done entirely by independent contractors who were hired for the task. Rather, it was an effort which involved a whole community for several generations. Amiens was essentially completed in 50 years - a near record time - but few who worked on it at the time the cornerstone was laid saw its final form.
In the 12th century, Robert de Mont-Saint-Michel recorded his impression on watching Notre Dame d'Chartres being constructed:
In that year were to be seen for the first time at Chartres the faithful harnessed to carts, laden with stones, timbers, corn and whatever might be needed for the work of building the cathedral, the towers of which rose like magic into the heavens. And this was happening, not only here, but almost everywhere in France and Normandy and in other parts. Everywhere men humbled themselves, did penance, and forgave their enemies. Men and women could be seen dragging heavy loads through mire and marsh, praising in song the miracle which God was performing before their eyes. (3)
What was it about construction of a building which managed to pull together such a diverse lot of people to call them to such sacrifice and bruise and bloody their fingers with excruciatingly difficult labor?
Can we even imagine what Abbot Haimon of St. Pierre-sur-Dives of Normandy saw when he observed construction at Tutbury in England:
Whoever saw or heard the like? Lords and Princes, full of riches and honours, even women of noble birth, their proud heads bowed, harnessed like beasts of burden to carts, bringing wine, corn, oil, lime, stones, timbers and other things needful for sustaining life or the fabric of churches. And though more than a thousand people are there, deep silence reigns, no word is heard, not even a whisper. Nothing can stop them. You would think that you were witnessing the Jews of old striding over Jordan. The very sea is held back to let them pass, as eye-witnesses of Sainte-Marie-du-Port have asserted. When the pilgrims reach the church which they want to help to build they form a camp of their waggons and watch, and sing psalms, the whole night through. On every cart candles and lamps are lit, relics are brought to the sick, and processions of prayer are held for their recovery. (4)
Beauty, devotion, single mindedness of purpose, awe, reverence, sacrifice. A knowledge of the presence of God and that He was owed everything. Nothing - nothing - was more important than service to God and every person, noble or poor, extraordinarily gifted or simply able to labor in obscurity, had a part of making the Temple of God the very best it could be. And they understood the passage of Scripture which is the touch stone for each who would confront artistry, whether 1000 years ago or today:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. (Philippians 4:8) (5)
"Whatever" is one of those words which has been ruined by our contemporary culture. Today, it gets tossed about easily, a quick response when one doesn't want to formulate a committal answer. "Yeah, whatever," implies the subject isn't important enough to deal with in a substantive way, or one has an argument not worth the effort to articulate. But the Apostle Paul knew that words have meaning, and that "whatever" is anything but an insignificant word; rather, it is a word which wrestles us to the ground and demands of us our undivided attention in everything we do, think or say.
What Paul tells us in Philippians 4:8 is that excellence in all things at all times is demanded - even commanded. It is an active verse, one which tells us what we both should be doing and what we must do. Paul's focus on our minds is important, as he understands that once our mind has given assent, our actions will follow.
With the artist in mind, Harold Best has reordered Paul's words in order to make an important point:
"Finally, brethren, whatever is TRUE, whatever is RIGHT, whatever is PURE; whatever is NOBLE, whatever is LOVELY, whatever is ADMIRABLE - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things."
The key words have been placed in this order: true, right, pure; noble, lovely, admirable. This allows the concept of excellence to be viewed in two ways. First, excellence is the WHAT of living: truth, rightness and purity. Second, excellence is the QUALITY, the style, the tone, of life: nobility, loveliness, and admirableness. It can be put this way. We are to spend our lives being true, pure, and in the right. But we are to go about this nobly, with loveliness, and in an admirable and exemplary way. (6)
By reminding us that there are two components to excellence - the WHAT and the QUALITY - Best has given us a practical standard for measuring not only our artistic burnt offerings but even every aspect of life. All who worked on Amiens Cathedral, whether a skilled wood carver or stone cutter, or a cook who boiled stew for the workers to eat each day, understood that excellence came from both proper motivation and proper execution, and that no task, no matter how significant or small, escaped God's notice. The very act of being a good steward of what God has given impels each individual to act excellently all the time. It is a constant state of being and doing. It is not reserved for the practice room, or the recital stage, or the audition moment. Excellence is, as Best puts it, "the norm of stewardship." (7)
Now, if by "whatever" Paul means we are to be committed to excellence in ALL things, and we understand that excellence is something which we are called to as the norm of life, we must accept, a priori, that excellence is not a burden. Excellence is the minute by minute working to be better than we once were. But it is not "perfection."
How many times has an artist said, "I did that perfectly yesterday, why can't I do it today?" But, of course, it wasn't done perfectly yesterday. We have no concept of perfection. Perfection has appeared on earth only twice in all of time - in creation before the Fall, and in the person of Jesus Christ. In both cases, that perfection was rejected by man. We cannot ever accomplish perfection ourselves, but the ongoing pursuit of excellence frees us from the fear that perfection cannot be attained. By acting stewardly towards that which He has given us, God accepts our offering in a way which is pleasing to Him. We are freed from the curse of imperfection because we know that our stewardly pursuit of excellence in "whatever" is honored by the one who has defined it.
When trying to determine what it actually is to act stewardly in regards to excellence, we can gain insight from the example of tenor Jon Vickers, who, upon his retirement, said:
My whole life has been one reflecting the necessity of serving. That is the greatest source of happiness, the greatest sense of fulfillment. And it is of course the essence of the Christian faith. . . Nature has equipped me with a certain talent, and it is my responsibility to use it for something that is uplifting, that will enhance and embellish the lives of people who have been given something in that they can even receive it. (8)Vickers was on to something very important - that utilizing one's talent in the service of others is a gift that gives to all; it gives to self, others and to God. With life lived as a perpetual cycle of giving excellently to "whatever," we remove excellence from being a temporary state to being an ongoing message.
While we may give intellectual assent to all of this, we are, however, brutally faced with the reality of this Age. We live in a time where mere effort is often confused for excellence ("Johnny, it doesn't matter if you get the right answer as long as you feel good about how you got it...") and the attainment of a goal means that excellence must surely have taken place ("If it works, it must be excellent; if this technique persuades, if that protocol saves a soul, if this piece of music leads to worship, if that approach collects enough votes to elect, we have achieved excellence." (9)).
Sadly, Christians have all too often led the charge when it comes to the confusion of effort with excellence. With God, the first artist, as our teacher and model, and with the understanding that excellence is something which can be qualified (something which transcends simple "taste" and "style" (10) ), is it any wonder why Franky Schaeffer railed against mere effort which flies in the face of stewardly excellence:
Today, Christian endeavor in the arts is typified by the contents of your local Christian bookstore-accessories-paraphernalia shop. For the coffee table we have a set of praying hands made out of some sort of pressed muck. Christian posters are ready to adorn your walls with suitable Christian graffiti to sanctify them and make them a justifiable expense. Perhaps a little plastic cube with a mustard seed entombed within to boost your understanding of faith. And as if this were not enough, a toothbrush with a Bible verse stamped on its plastic handle. And a comb with a Christian slogan or two impressed on it. On a flimsy rack are stacked a pile of records. You may choose them at random blindfolded, for most of them will be the same idle rehash of acceptable spiritual slogans, endlessly recycled as pablum for the tone-deaf, television-softened brains of our present-day Christians. (11)Schaeffer's angry screed stings with the pain of truth. Production must never substitute for content. Where are the words of Paul - true, right, pure; noble, lovely, admirable? In our artistic endeavors are we aware of both the need for excellence in production AND content - and not simply blending the two together to become a confused and confusing "easy way out?"
This becomes all the more important when we realize that society really does notice what we do. In our post-Christian era, the world is all too ready to pounce upon Christians for their hypocrisy and inconsistency. The words of our own Scripture get thrown in our faces when we slip and fall. Our response can always be "we are not perfect, just forgiven," but can we use that trite truism as an excuse for shoddy work? May it never be! Again, Schaeffer:
The idea that "the Spirit can work somehow," that God can bring something out of it if we just sort of throw it out there, is unjustifiable from those who claim to know the living God and can see his integrity and dedication to the quality in his Word and the world around us. The excuse that "many people see this," and that "somehow it must do some good" and "it's better than nothing" is no excuse. Since when has quantity been the deciding factor with God? Where is the still small voice of integrity? Many people look at the worst in TV; does this justify it? What were Christ's ratings? Many people look at pornography; does this justify pornography? Of all people, Christians should be addicted to quality and integrity in every area, not be looking for excuses for second-best. (12)We should, and can, and must call ourselves to the high standard of excellence which God has entrusted to us. And while we must remember that excellence is a process - the very act of becoming better than we once were - rather than a destination, it is the only way to contextualize that which is true, right and pure in a world which stands against truth, rightness and purity. Where the world values relativism and compromise and is openly hostile to the Christian world-view which demands obedience to the True Word, servants of Christ know a higher standard, and know the effort to be stewardly excellent in "whatever" will be worth all of the hard work, pain and sacrifice when they hear their Lord say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
John Wesley, in his Select Hymns of 1761, gave directions for singing so those who would raise their voice in song would do so in a way which would bring honor to God. His final instruction applies well to all who would call themselves Christians and in particular to those who would seek to change the world with artistic endeavor:
Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven. (13)
I return now to Amiens.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. While it is sadly not uncommon to walk through a park today and see statuary defaced with graffiti, so it is even in a great Gothic cathedral. While the magnificent choir stalls in Amiens contain exquisite carvings by skilled artisans, there are several stalls which contain crude and hastily scratched graffiti. (14) Most of the graffiti are names, perhaps of musicians who may have become bored standing during a three hour long service. But the particular stall where the graffiti is most copious happens to be where a serpentist would have stood and played to accompany the choir. From 1590 through the late 1800's, the serpent was the instrument of choice to help keep the choir on pitch in French churches. Knowing that generations of serpentists have stood in particular stalls for hundreds of years, it is more than likely that the names carved there belong to the players themselves.
The graffiti comes as a shock to the eye which otherwise is awestruck with the love and care which is evident in every bit of artistic rendering in the cathedral. The casual observer may think it a disgrace that some would deface the stalls in such a crude manner, or the more forgiving visitor might simply brush it aside as "boys will be boys." But a careful examination of the graffiti reveals a surprise. Amidst the hastily scrawled names the eye is drawn to one bit of careful carving. Someone in the last 400 years took the time to painstakingly render an image of a serpent into the soft wood. Just one inch high, is is perfectly proportioned, even to the accuracy of the shape and proportion of the tiny mouthpiece. Unlike all of the other graffiti in the stall, it was made with care, and is, in its simplicity and craft, no less well executed than the other 4,000 handsomely carved images in the choir.
We cannot know who carved the small serpent into the Amiens choir stall. But if we use our imagination, could we consider the possibility that a young serpent player, serving in the church to the glory of his God, might have been saddened to see what generations of players before him had done to the stall with their knives? Can we imagine that perhaps he thought that while he could not erase the graffiti, he might add something to it which would rise to a higher standard - which would not be hastily done but which would be carefully and beautifully made? And that one night, when the Cathedral was dark, he lit a candle and took his knife to the stall and painstakingly and lovingly carved an image of his instrument - the instrument with which he praised God daily, the instrument with which he played one chant after another as a good steward of his talent - in an effort to redeem the stall again for the sake of excellence? And could we imagine, even further, that when his handiwork was discovered by others, even many years later, that it gave them pause as they considered the beauty and care which infused the small image of a serpent? And that maybe, just maybe, this small little image of a musical instrument was the last bit of graffiti to be carved into that particular stall, because excellence had made its mark and none dared tamper with it?
Perhaps. Excellence is like that. It gets noticed. It makes a difference. It changes people. And it honors the Lord. May we always pursue it, whether it be in a Kopprasch etude, a Kreutzer study, a Bach aria or a Berio Sequenza. Stewardly excellence rendered excellently is "a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God." (15)
Whatever. . .
(2) For more on the architecture and construction of Amiens Cathedral, see the Amiens Cathedral Website.
(3) Hans Jantzen, High Gothic: The Classic Cathedrals of Chartres, Reims, Amiens, translated by James Palmes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957/1962/1984), p. viii.
(4) ibid., p. viii-ix.
(5) The Holy Bible, New International Version (NIV). © 1973, New York Bible Society International; © 1978 New York International Bible Society. Used with permission.
(6) Harold M. Best. Music Through The Eyes of Faith. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993), pp. 107-108. The Scripture passage is paraphrased from the New International Version (NIV).
(7) ibid., p. 109.
(8) Michael Linton., rev. of Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life, by Jeannie Williams, First Things, 108 (December 2000), 50.
(9) Best. op. cit., p. 113.
(10) For a further discussion on criteria to qualify artistic work as "excellent," see Harold M. Best, Creative Diversity, Authenticity and Excellence
(11) Franky Schaeffer, Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1981), p. 21.
(12) ibid., p. 45
(13) John Wesley. Select Hymns (1761). Cited in The United Methodist Hymnal (The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. vii.
(14) For photographs and commentary about the choir stall graffiti in Amiens Cathedral referenced here, see Douglas Yeo's Serpentists in Charles Wild's "Choir of the Cathedral of Amiens, c. 1826"
(15) Philippians 4:18c. New American Standard Bible (NASB), © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, by The Lockman Foundation.
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