Simple question: What is a corbel?
You’ve definitely seen traditional corbels before, even if you didn’t know the proper name for these architectural structures at the time. Corbels are decorative architectural accents placed on the exterior of a wall. They are shaped like a right triangle and are used to support windows, doorframes, shelves, and more. You’ll find them anywhere there’s a 90-degree angle that needs some support or ornamentation.
Large corbels made of stone and decorated with carved angels, scrolls, and leaves can be seen supporting many Late Gothic style cathedrals. Corbels in the classical style are often featured on towering old stone architecture in cities like Washington, D.C. or Boston. Small corbels that are plainly designed are often featured in the doorways and fireplaces of modern homes.
Modern corbels are often made of wood, although corbels that were plain or featured wood carving designs have existed for quite a while as well. Wood carving is one of the oldest types of art, likely older than stone carving, dating back over 400,000 years as far as we can tell.
But wait — there are different names for corbels?
If you’ve never heard the term “corbel” before, maybe you’ve heard of one its synonyms, “tassels” or “braggers”. These two terms typically refer to wooden corbels and are more popular in usage in the United Kingdom. The name ‘corbel’ comes from the Latin word corbellus, or “little crow” (crow being corvus in Latin), a reference to the beak-like appearance of the typical plain corbel.
Like most architectural features, corbels, tassels, and braggers started out as practical supports for material jutting out from walls. People have been using corbel-like structures in their building plans since Neolithic times. As beautifying homes, businesses, and places of worship became priorities in society, people found ways to ‘dress up’ these structural pieces. Hence, the angels and scrollwork.
Large corbels on the outside of homes can provide a lot of stately character. Inside the home, many people enjoy rustic wooden corbels to finish off tall doorways or add some composed flair to the underside of bar tops. Decorative corbels supporting an otherwise understated fireplace mantle is a beautiful example of using the most simple of architectural pieces to your aesthetic advantage.