Corbel Heads in St. Mary Basilica

Corbels originally carved from stone were intended to support an architectural element. In St Mary, however, they are plaster and strictly decorative. They are part of the ornamental plaster works installed in 1858-1859 during the completion of the interior of the cathedral by Bishop William Henry Elder. Examples are found at the base of the window arches and the large brackets surrounding the nave. In gothic architecture, they can include various designs: animal, human or abstracts. In St. Mary, they do not depict particular people, but represent a “subject.” They are usually identifiable by symbols as in the bishop with a mitre, as shown. In St. Mary, there are four principal human “subjects”: king, bishop, crusader and possibly a craftsman. Corbel heads are unique to the churches in which they are found.

The corbels had been a mystery for many years as no one seemed to know what they meant or who made them. St. Mary Basilica Archives Committee researched and found some possible answers.

Corbel head — bishop with a mitre

Recently we read in the October 24, 1859, issue of the Mississippi Free Trader “… it is our province to notice the plastering work of our own citizens and eminent artisans, Richard Carkeet & Sons (James and Henry). The exquisite stucco work which so materially relieves and embellishes of the Cathedral, with its cobals [corbels] or brackets representing heads or medallions, visible in admirable order in all parts of the building, from the floor to the lofty ceiling, and, the bosses, formed of leaves and other emblematic designs, that adorn the intersections, are evidence of taste, genius and artistic skill that should be and are the subject of special admiration. We have home artists, such as the Carkeets, that we are proud of, and whose well merited fame we eagerly embrace the opportunity to record.”

In “Sketch of the Catholic Church in the City of Natchez, Miss.” (On the Occasion of the Consecration of Its Cathedral, September 19, 1886) Brother Celestin, C.M. on page 36 writes, “All was done by our own mechanics of Natchez. Much of the ornamental wood-work was entirely new to them, but Mr. Warner instructed them how to make it. The plastering was done under contract, by Mr. Carkeet, his son executing it.”

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Advertisement taken from The Natchez Daily Courier, Nov 12, 1857.

Gold leaf was applied by Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc. during the 1999-2002 restoration.
View detailed color photographs of the corbels.
Submitted by St. Mary Basilica Archives Committee, March 2019.

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Lithograph on stone - St. Mary Cathedral