architecturepast & present

Architectural Details: Corbel

by Amy Azzarito


For my flea market shopping self, corbels are perhaps the most tempting of all architectural elements. There are just so many possibilities. You can put it on a wall and create a tiny shelf to serve as a bedside table or use one as a fancy bookend on a bookshelf, or if you find a giant one, it could support a larger table or even a kitchen island. The usefulness of a corbel is one of the reasons why it’s been a popular architectural element since it was used in temple architecture by the Greeks in the mid-6th century. The word “corbel” comes from Old French (spoken from the 9th to the 14th centuries) and is derived from the word for a crow –  referring to the beak-like appearance of the corbel when it protrudes from the wall. And essentially, all a corbel is, is a piece of stone or wood that juts out of a wall and can support weight. Although corbels often played a decidedly decorative function, they also had structural uses. For example, corbels were used during the remodeling of Westminster Hall to reduce the span of the wooden ceiling.  But they are most famous for appearing as gargoyles on the side of churches and cathedrals (think Notre Dame in Paris). Corbel arches are made of two opposing sets of overlapping corbels, which create a structure strong enough to support weight from above.  These days the corbel is used more for its decorative appeal than structural. For example, you could add a corbeled arch in a doorway – it’s an easy way to add a little architectural interest into your home.  And next time I’m at Brimfield, I’m going to snap one up for myself. –Amy

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