The cuteness of corbels

View of the nave, Sant Ambrogio, Milan

View of the nave, Sant’Ambrogio, Milan

Pata leaned over and whispered in my ear, breaking the silence of the cool, dark basilica. ‘I like how they put an X up there,’ she said, pointing to the vault.

‘That’s the ribbing,’ I told her. ‘These are groin vaults. Look at my hands,’ I said, curving them into the shape of an arch. ‘If you put them together, you make a space that’s covered with a curved ceiling. That’s a barrel vault. Imagine two of them intersecting, that’s a groin vault.’  Pointing to the vault above, I added, ‘the ribbing is kind of like a skeleton, making the vault stronger. Or sometimes it’s just for decoration.’

We walked over to one of the piers of the arcade and I pointed out each individual shaft and the arch that it supported. She followed my finger as I traced the trajectory of the ribs across the vault, down to the piers diagonally opposite. ‘Do you see how it all relates? This architecture shows us how it works.’

‘Look, all of the arches match!’ she told me excitedly, first pointing to the arcade, and then to the arched openings of the gallery above it. ‘And look at all the little ones, they’re so cute!’

‘That’s an arched corbel table. The little arches are supported by those little stones. They’re corbels, do you remember them? You’ve seen them many times before. When there’s a row of arches supported by corbels, it’s called an arched corbel table. It’s one my favourite things about this kind of architecture.’

‘Mine too,’ she said, smiling.

Atrium and facade, Sant'Ambrogio, Milan

Atrium and facade, Sant’Ambrogio, Milan

Back outside in the atrium, she examined the arched corbel tables there. ‘Some of these arches are missing corbels,’ she said.

Detail of the facade, Sant'Ambrogio, Milan (click to enlarge)

Detail of the facade, Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (click to enlarge)

‘Yes, they’ve lost their corbels. But see how only the corbels have fallen, and not the arches, that means that they don’t really support the arches, they’re just there for decoration. The arches look kind of silly without their corbels, don’t they?’

Detail of the gable (with a missing corbel) Sant'Ambrogio, Milan

Detail of the gable (with a missing corbel in the apex) Sant’Ambrogio, Milan

‘Yeah, mommy, they’re much cuter with corbels.’

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