What is a Corbel? Architecture Photo Gallery

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The Corbel Bracket

Flat roof, overhang, many corbels as ornamentation
Typical Victorian building in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by Maria Karas / Corbis / Getty Images

A corbel has come to mean an architectural bracket or block projecting from a wall, often in the eave of a roof overhang. Its function is to support (or appear to support) a ceiling, beam, shelf, or the roof overhang itself.

A corbel or bracket is often used to describe the thing that supports a structure, like the bottom bracket on an oriel window, which can be a highly decorative corbel or bracket.

Today's corbel can be made of wood, plaster, marble, or other materials, natural or synthetic. Home supply stores often sell reproduction historic corbels made of polymer, a plastic material.

Brackets or Corbeled or Corbeling?

The word has a historic past, with various meanings of "corbel" being used throughout the years. Some people avoid the word altogether, calling the decoration seen here as simply a bracketed cornice.

To make matters more confusing, corbel can also be used as a verb. To corbel an eave might mean to attach corbels to a roof overhang. Corbeling (also written as corbelling) is also a way to make an arch or even a roof.

The Glossary of the National Historical Society's Survey of Early American Design prefers to use "bracket" to describe what others describe as corbels. The Society describes corbel as a process, "To build outward, by projecting successive courses of masonry beyond those below." And, so, a corbeled cornice consists of "several projections each of which extends farther outward than the one below."

A Common Language:

Explore these photos of different corbels used throughout history, and come to your own conclusions. The most important takeaway to remember in this discussion is that people may use different words to explain this architectural detail or building function. In any building project, make sure you understand and explain design intentions. Two-way communication is necessary to move toward a no-surprises building project.

Common Misspellings:

  • corbal
  • corble

Source: Survey of Early American Design Volume I edited by Lisa C. Mullins, The National Historical Society, 1987, p. 241

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Origin of the Word Corbel

Renovated House with Architectural Details Restored
Renovated House with Architectural Details Restored. Photo by bgwalker / E+ / Getty Images

Corbel comes from the Latin word corvus, which describes a large, black bird—the raven, perhaps. One wonders if mythology has something to do with this word catching on in the Middle Ages. Or, perhaps, the corbels were so far up near the roof that they were mistaken for a flock of sharp-beaked birds by a nearsighted nobleman. It's a mysterious word, but knowing its history can give you ideas for your own home renovation. The restorers who worked on the house shown here painted the corbels a dark, raven-like color projecting from what looks to be yellow dentil fascia.

What is a Corbel Step?
Better known as corbie steps or crow steps, corbel steps are projections above the roof line—usually a parapet-like wall along a gable. The words corbel and corbie both come from the same root. A corbie in Scotland is a big, black bird, like a crow.

Corbie steps—some people call them corbel steps—can be found throughout the Western world. Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire is made to look larger and more grand with its stepped parapet.

Sources: Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, Wiley, 2002, p. 322; [accessed October 9, 2015]

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Corbels and Victorian Architecture

Ornate bay windows below corbels
Ornate bay windows below corbels. Photo by McKevin Shaughnessy/E+ Collection/Getty Images

Corbel brackets can go up or go down—that is, they can be more horizontal or more vertical. Note the more vertical nature of these corbels compared with the renovated house previously seen.

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Types of Houses With Corbels

Corbels on ornate Victorian house with flat roof that overhanges
Corbels on a Victorian Home in Indiana. Photo by Mardis Coers / Moment Mobile / Getty Images (cropped)

Corbels are a distinctive architectural detail for many of the house styles from the US building boom of the 19th century. Corbels, whether functional or decorative, are often found in these house styles:

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Joined image of corbels on the Diwan-i-Khas at Fatehpur Sikri, India, 16th century (left) and Illustration of a Console, a type of corbel or bracket (right)
Corbels on the Diwan-i-Khas at Fatehpur Sikri, India, 16th century (left) and Illustration of a Console, a type of corbel or bracket (right). Left photo by Angelo Hornak / Corbis Historical / Getty Images and right illustration by Encyclopaedia Britannica / Universal Images Group / Getty Images (both cropped)

The Diwan-i-Khas, built by Mughal Emperor Akbar for his most intimate guests, shows very intricate and ornate corbels. The 16th century carvings at Fatehpur Sikri, India are good examples of Mughal architecture (a derivative of Persian architecture) functioning similarly to Western architecture, but visually different in design.

Cyril Harris's Dictionary uses the word console to describe the Western world's decorative bracket.

"console 1. A decorative bracket in the form of a vertical scroll, projecting from a wall to support a cornice, a door or window head, a piece of sculpture, etc.; an ancon.—Harris"

Harris goes on to describe other meanings of "console," including the mechanics that control an organ (the instrument) or other mechanical devices. He leaves the word "corbel" to masonry supports and progressively stepped projections, a procedure to create arches and masonry roofs.

All corbels (and all brackets) do not look alike, although any one style may dominate in popularity at a time in history. Remember that

  • a corbel is a decorative bracket
  • a console is a decorative bracket usually in the form of a vertical scroll
  • an ancon or ancone is similar to a console

Source: Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw- Hill, 1975, pp. 123, 129

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Masonry Corbels

Pepperpot Turrets of Château de Sarzay, 14th century, medieval French fortress in central France
Corbels on the Turrets at Château de Sarzay. Photo by Joe Cornish / Passage / Getty Images (cropped)

The fortified towers of Château de Sarzay are well-known as "pepper pot" or "pepper box" turrets because of their tall and slender shape—like a pepper grinder. This 14th century Medieval castle in central France is a good example of functional masonry corbels near the widened top of each turret.

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What is a Corbel Arch?

Corbel Arch at the Treasury of Atreus in Mycenae, 13th century BC archaeological site in Greece
Corbel Arch at the Treasury of Atreus in Mycenae, 13th century BC archaeological site in Greece. Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (cropped)

Corbelling is the successive placement of objects to create a structure—much like you can do with a deck of cards to make a "House of Cards." This simple technique was used in ancient times to create primitive arches. Rubbing smooth the interior of the arch created a new architecture thousands of years ago.

"Corbel. A projecting block, usually of stone, supporting a beam or other horizontal member. A series, each one projecting beyond the one below, can be used in constructing a vault or arch."— The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, 3rd ed., 1980, p. 81

As the definition indicates, a "series" of these corbel projections can be stacked together, and if you stack two columns unevenly toward each other an arch forms. Note the stone placement in this ancient Greek tomb. The Treasury of Atreus, with its corbelled arch, is thought to have been built around 1300 BC, well before the Classical Era of Greece and Rome. This type of primitive construction is also found in the Mayan architecture of Mexico.

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What is a Corbelled Roof?

Corbelled Trulli roofs of Houses in Alberobello, Italy
Corbelled Trulli roofs of Houses in Alberobello, Italy. Photo by NurPhoto / Corbis News / Getty Images

The Trulli of Alberobello in southern Italy is a UNESCO World Heritage site. A trullo is a house with a conical limestone corbelled roof, also called a corbeled vault. Slabs of stones are arranged in an offset circle, like the corbelled arch but round and ending in a cone-shaped dome. This primitive construction method  of dry corbelling is still used locally.

The great teacher, structural engineer, and professor Mario Salvadori tells us that the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed with a corbelled roof, "slabs each extending 3 inches inward from the slab below it."

Sources: Why Buildings Stand Up by Mario Salvadori, McGraw-Hill, 1980, p. 34; The Trulli of Alberobello, UNESCO [accessed October 9, 2015]

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Corbels Today

Sculptor Jens Cacha creates a corbel from clay for the Recreated Facade Berliner Schloss in Berlin, Germany
Sculptor Jens Cacha creates a corbel from clay for the Recreated Facade Berliner Schloss in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Sean Gallup / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Modern corbels have the same function as they always have had—decorative and functional as a structural brace. For large restoration projects, master craftsmen are hired to recreate the corbels of historic buildings. For example, in recreated the facade of the Berliner Schloss, which was destroyed in World War II bombing, sculptor Jens Cacha used old photographs to create clay corbels for the Berlin, Germany project. 

For houses in historic districts, homeowners should replace corbels according to their historic commission's recommendations. This is usually going to mean that wooden corbels are replaced with wood, and stone corbels are replaced with stone. The design should be historically accurate. Luckily, these days corbels can be purchased everywhere—even on Amazon.com!
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Craven, Jackie. "What is a Corbel? Architecture Photo Gallery." ThoughtCo, Sep. 30, 2016, thoughtco.com/all-about-corbel-and-corbelling-4096670. Craven, Jackie. (2016, September 30). What is a Corbel? Architecture Photo Gallery. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/all-about-corbel-and-corbelling-4096670 Craven, Jackie. "What is a Corbel? Architecture Photo Gallery." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/all-about-corbel-and-corbelling-4096670 (accessed November 23, 2017).