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The Troyes Cathedral Corbel

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Gravely Gorgeous: Gargoyles, Grotesques and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination
The Corbel
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When Andrew Dickson White retired as the first president of Cornell, he made an extended trip to Europe. In September of 1886, White completed his yearlong journey with a tour of the historic architectural monuments of the Champagne region in France. He stopped for two days in Troyes, to see the town’s many Gothic churches and its famous Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. He also visited the local government photographer in search of photographs for Cornell’s Department of Architecture. White purchased several dozen photographs and convinced the photographer, with the unlikely but genuine name of Gustave Lancelot, to sell him a piece of sculpture from his personal collection (pieces of which are pictured in his studio, above right, along with the sculpture).

White’s purchase was a corbel, or supporting device, that had been removed from the interior of the cathedral during renovations. According to Lancelot, the carving originally stood on a pier above the high altar in the Troyes Cathedral, in the oldest part of the cathedral, built between 1210 and 1240. If what the photographer claimed was true, it was part of a series of eight corbels, each of which supported a figure of a bishop. The statues were severely damaged during the French Revolution, removed during the 1840s in a controversial restoration, and replaced by statues copied from a similar series at Chartres.

As a typical grotesque figure, the corbel features a comical face, peeking out from naturalistically carved flora. White’s own words describe it well: “the grotesque face of a monk in the midst of a mass of foliage supporting the base of a statue, all being carved with great spirit.” Although it probably represents a fool or peasant rather than a monk, as White thought, it is a good representation of a comical grotesque, and possibly a caricature.

A. D. White bought the corbel from Lancelot for 200 francs and shipped it to Ithaca for Cornell’s Architectural Museum. When overcrowding in the College of Architecture necessitated the closure of the museum around 1910, the Troyes Cathedral corbel slipped into obscurity. But some ninety years later, archivists discovered photographs of the corbel—annotated by White—while cataloguing A. D. White’s collection of architectural photographs. The images sparked a great deal of curiosity and a vigorous search for the corbel. Digital reproductions of White’s nineteenth-century photographs, along with results of research in the archives were publicized online. In short order, the Troyes corbel itself came to light. It had left the campus and found its way into the garden of a private collector. When he learned of its history, the owner generously returned the corbel to Cornell.

Further information about the Troyes Cathedral Corbel is available online

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