A corbel is a projecting block of stone or timber that supports a feature above. A row of corbels supporting a parapet, stringcourse or the eaves of a roof is called a corbel table. Corbels and corbel tables are thus functional features, but in the early Middle Ages, especially during the 12th and 13th centuries, they were often decorated with carving.
Corbels are often used to support the tympanum of a Romanesque doorway. At Ely Abbey (now cathedral), corbels were often used in this way. The fishscale tympanum of a small internal stair-turret doorway was supported by a pair of corbels taking the form of rolls decorated with chevron and daisies on the ends.
On the more elaborate Prior’s doorway, human head corbels support a tympanum showing Christ in Majesty.
Corbels could be similarly used as an alternative to responds with capitals to carry internal arches, the ends of arcades or vault ribs, and in these cases the corbels usually take capital forms, with impost blocks above and sometimes conical terminals below.
A corbel table is a row of corbels carrying a projecting stringcourse under the eaves of a roof, or supporting the parapet of a tower. Sometimes the corbels carry an arcade.
Since corbel tables do not invariably appear in these positions in Romanesque buildings, it would seem that they perform no essential function. Their symbolic functions, however, are a matter for endless debate and speculation.
As Michael Camille pointed out, the position of the corbel table on the exterior of the church places it outside the sacred space itself, at the junction between the church and the everyday world outside it. From this we might conclude that the imagery of the corbel table might be a representation of the outside world.
The complete Romanesque church of St Mary and St David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, has 93 surviving exterior corbels. Of these 24 surround the apse, 18 are on the chancel walls and 49 are on the nave walls. The final two corbels are reused as label stops for a chancel window. 12 of the corbels are either lost or too badly damaged to be interpreted. The first point to note is that only two of the corbels show recognisable religious subjects. Both depict the Agnus Dei, and they are placed in key positions: on the axis of the apse, and above the S nave doorway, which was the parish entrance.
For the rest, we have a mixture of humans – both heads and complete figures, grotesques, more or less conventional animals, plants and interlace. If this is a representation of the world outside the church, then all is not as it appears on the surface. The figure scenes include a musician, a pair of wrestlers, lovers embracing, a falling figure, perhaps signifying pride, and the best-known of all, an explicit female exhibitionist.
All of these suggest that vice is a theme here, and this sheds some light on the interpretation of the other corbels. Grotesque and ordinary heads are juxtaposed, both in the human and the animal world. A muzzled bear has two human heads sticking out of the corners of its mouth; and a demon with the head of a hawk makes two appearances, sinking its beak into the mouth of the man whose head it straddles; elsewhere a carrion bird eats another bird’s body.
The scenes of torment and the grotesque creatures would lose their point if they were not set in the midst of the ordinary – men and women, hares, rabbits, rams and pigs. The message to be taken must be that the world outside the church is not as it seems, and that the Lamb of God above the doorway points the way to the salvation that can only be gained inside the building.
I suspect that there is more to be read in the corbel table than this. There are differences in the content in different parts of the corbel table. Most of the scenes of vice and its punishment, for example, are set around the apse. I also strongly suspect that other churches would offer slightly different messages, but this little essay is not intended to provide any more than a starting point.
M. Camille, Image on the Edge: the Margins of Medieval Art, London 1992.
A. Weir and J. Jerman, Images of Lust, London 1986.
N. Kenaan Kedar, Marginal Sculpture in Medieval France, Aldershot 1995.
But to be honest, your best bet for pictures and descriptions of British Romanesque corbels and corbel tables is the website of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture http://www.crsbi.ac.uk