Corbel Tables

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Kjartan Hauglid

Figurative corbel tables are an architectural element which originated in the 11th century and consists of a series of corbels placed beneath the cornice of a church building. The French art historian Émile Mâle demonstrated in 1911 that exterior corbel tables in France originated in the Great Mosque or Mezquita in Cordoba (Andalucia) in the 8th century. The corbel tables were adopted by the Christians in the North of Spain and the South-West of France at the end of the 10th century and rapidly spread throughout Western Europe in the second half of the 11th century. Early corbel tables had scrolls, rods or geometrical shapes; it was not until the early 11th century that corbels were decorated with animate figures.

Cordoba, La Gran Mezquita

The earliest Romanesque corbels known belonged either to monastic foundations or churches connected to the pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela, «el camino de Santiago». Mâle described Romanesque corbel tables as a purely decorative element, and this opinion has ruled iconographical research throughout the 20th century. The number of corbels varies in the different monuments. Some churches have only a few, others several hundred. Around the year 1100, the imagery of the corbel tables was fully developed, and the phenomenon had its widest diffusion around 1120-1130. In this period Romanesque corbel tables had spread all over the Christian world. From around 1160 a more severe and less figurative version developed, often referred to as Cistercian style or Transitional style. The figurative corbel tables disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, and were within a short period replaced by undecorated corbels or vegetal ornaments.

San Martin, Fromista (Palencia)
In spite of the large selection of motifs to choose from, early corbel tables depict corporality and perceptibility. The iconography of the corbel tables is complex, and includes exhibitionists, embracing couples, thorn pullers, beard pullers, barrel drinkers or gluttons, jugglers and acrobats, musicians and horn blowers, humans with serpents and humans eaten by lions, beasts or monsters. Through different activities and body language the figures show that they are not part of the blessed ones. Several early corbel tables in monastic settings show men and women exhibiting themselves.
Catedral de San Pedro de Jaca (Huesca, Aragón)
The Danish art historian Jørgen Andersen discussed female exhibitionist corbel figures in his doctoral thesis from 1977. Andersen argued that they were part of the moral teachings of the church. Anthony Weir and James Jerman support this view in the book Images of Lust from 1986. Even though this interpretation has recently been supported by a prominent medievalist like Jean Wirth, Andersen and Weir's interpretation is still not a universally accepted theory. The most common interpretations of corbel figures can be divided into four main theories: 1) “Pure ornament”. Émile Mâle was the leading advocate of this view. 2) “Free imagination”. The English art historian Lawrence Stone wrote in The Pelican History of Art: “The field in which the twelfth-century sculptor was able to give a free rein to his unbridled fancy was the corbel table. Rarely, however, did he take advantage of the opportunity to do more than a series of grotesque heads, dragons, and other simple stock subjects”. 3) “Pre-Christian cult and fertility”.
Catedral de San Pedro de Jaca (Huesca, Aragón)
Margaret Murray was the first to launch this theory in 1929: “The actual meaning of these figures is still obscure, but I am inclined to see in them the remains of that ancient worship which was too strongly rooted among the people to be destroyed by Christianity, and whose emblems survived even in the sacred places of the new religion”. Murray claimed that exhibitionistic corbel figures were: “probably the remains of a fertility cult”. Murray's interpretation is still referred to by many art historians. 4) “Apotropaic”, that corbels were intended to ward off evil. This theory is very common, and is often used in combination with the theory of pre-Christian religions.

In my opinion, none of the four theories mentioned above are convincing. Corbel tables originated in a monastic environment and must therefore have monastic roots. It means that corbel table motifs were originally chosen for an audience within monastic communities who would easily understand their iconography and didactic message. Even so this obvious connection has not been systematically researched. The range of motifs in the early corbel tables from the second half of the 11th century completely lack parallels in other contemporary preserved stone sculpture. The origin of the motifs must therefore be sought elsewhere. Some model images can be found in the apocalyptical Beatus Manuscripts. The Beatus Manuscripts consist of several illuminated manuscripts originally written as a comment to the Book of Revelation written in the 8th century by the Asturian monk Beatus of Liébana.

Santa María de Iguacel (Huesca, Aragón)
The most important texts used as models and inspiration for the corbel table imagery can be found in medieval visionary literature. The Austrian historian Peter Dinzelbacher has shown how the visionary literature contained a profound didactical message regarding human sins on earth and the punishments that waits. There are no corbel table studies related to visionary literature, but Robert Muchembled, a French mentality historian, refers to two specific examples that in his view show how visionary literature has influenced Romanesque stone sculpture: "The Romanesque sculpture of the eleventh and twelfth centuries incarnates Satan in a variety of human and an
San Isidoro, Leon (Leon)
imal forms. He was no longer a theological abstraction, but a man-eater, perfidious vassal or beast of the apocalypse of St-Sever. He was still, however, a product of the monkish imagination. At Saulieu, his portrayal as a winged human with a pointed snout like an anteater derives directly from a vision that had appeared to a monk of Cluny, as reported by Peter the Venerable, while the giants of Autun, with their tiny heads and unnaturally elongated limbs, come from a description in Guibert of Nogent. Grimacing and terrifying, the Romanesque devil struck fear into the religious elites and tried to impose his obsessive presence on ordinary Christians." 
Winchester Cathedral (Hampshire)

According to the French historian Jacques Le Goff the visions were important elements in the development of the purgatory (purgatorium) as a physical place, long before this perception was the official view within the church. The earliest visions were apocalyptic visions describing the Day of Judgment; therefore they are often referred to as apocalyptic literature. The vision of St. Paul (Visio Sancti Pauli) is the only one of these texts that was read and translated throughout the middle ages. In this vision St. Paul descended to Hell guided by an angel. In Hell he saw a man despairing with worms crawling into his mouth and nostrils. In a large hole in the ground sinners were eaten by serpents and toads. The sinners were unbelievers, those who had renounced Christ. All the scenes St. Paul saw during his visit to hell can also be found as examples in corbel tables. Tundals vision (Visio Tnugdali) that was put down in writing in 1049, contains a very detailed description of Hell. It describes how "The souls cried out in pain and complained about their foolishness. No one reduced their agony as their torture was repeated over and over again." Most corbel tables exemplify the damned tearing their hair, gnawing their hands, grinding their teeth, crying or shouting in pain and despair. The ethics in Tundals vision refers to the salvation as a consequence decided by the individual human actions on earth. In comparison other visions mainly refer to how humans on earth can aid the damned, i.e. by conducting masses for the dead.

Selby Abbey (Yorkshire)

The title of the project is "Damnavit exemplum. Warning Examples in Romanesque Figurative Corbel Tables, c.1030–1160". The main hypothesis and aim of the thesis is to show that Romanesque corbel tables had a didactic function that is now lost, and that the corbel figures exemplified human sin and consequent damnation as part of the Church's ethical policy. The project is empirically based on a material limited to Western Europe during the late 11th century to early 12th century (c.1030-1160). The principal questions in my thesis are: Why did figurative or animate corbel tables appear in the last part of the 11th century and then disappear a hundred years later? What is the basis of corbel table iconography? Are the motifs based on an earlier and established iconography, or are they a novelty in Romanesque sculpture? And if corbel tables should be seen (and read) as didactic and minatory, how do they relate to the medieval tradition of exempla? The problems will be illuminated by a wide selection of relevant medieval texts regarding rhetoric, theology, liturgy, homilies, law, books of penance (liber poenitentialis) and Visionary literature.  

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Case study: Trondheim