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.
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.
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.
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.
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.