Corbels and the Raven King

corbel grotesque
Corbel in the form of a grotesque, Quakers Friars, Broadmead, Bristol

Wandering among Words No 2: Corvid

You will often find them if you glance above you in a medieval church, high up on nave or chancel walls. Corbels are those stone brackets that project from the wall; they were designed to support a cornice, or more often the springing of an arch that rises like a slender tree trunk, curving and sprouting liernes to join other stone ribs so as to form a tracery of slender branches, supporting in their turn the distant vault.

They’re the counterpart of the capitals on freestanding pillars, those stone approximations of mighty trees; the capitals are sometimes plain (like Doric capitals) or abstract (like the ‘eyes’ on Ionic capitals) or even representational (as with the foliage on Corinthian capitals). Romanesque masons had fun carving shapes out of them: amongst them we might observe a grotesque face or an acrobatic exhibitionist, a shiela-na-gig or an angel, maybe even a foliate head or Green Man.

kilpeck corbelThe name however comes via French (corbeau means crow) from the Latin corvellus, a little raven. Supposedly the corbel’s shape resembles a crow, raven or even a beak, but I don’t see it myself; and in a quick scan of my books on Romanesque sculpture and online I’ve come across precious few beaked carvings (Kilpeck church in Herefordshire has one such, a splendid beaked monster).

Be that as it may, the Latin corvus has supplied the collective term for the crow family: corvid. In Britain this family is represented by the raven, the carrion crow, the rook, the chough and the jackdaw — all predominantly black — while the magpie and the jay each have a more motley plumage. All have fascinating stories to tell.

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