• Adrian J. Boas

On Appreciation of the Elbow

Elbow columns in the cloisters of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The elbow is one of the quirkier parts of the human anatomy. It is useful but somewhat grotesque, rather like the ear. It is difficult to think of what adulatory remarks might be said about it. Can you imagine a poem by Keats titled Ode to an Elbow, or such a comment, in a novel as: "She had such exquisite elbows, so perfectly formed. I gazed on them with adoration..."? No, it just doesn't work. Admittedly, elbows are not entirely absent in art. Sculptors occasionally have a go at them, but only as a detail, and I have never come across a painting focusing on them - Still Life with an Elbow... Study of an Elbow in White. With the exclusion perhaps of a perverted few, no one finds the elbow to be a sensual thing. But if it is short on beauty, it makes up for it in usefulness. It is really an unsung hero of the human body. Think about it... where would humanity be without the elbow? Progress depends upon it. Without an elbow, how could you scratch your ear?

Frankish architects might then fall into the category of the "perverted few", for they indeed did take note of the elbow, adopting its form in their buildings. Like the human elbow, their constructed version was functional, and it had the advantage over the human one in also being somewhat attractive in form. In the eyes of the Franks it was indeed so attractive that it was chosen for use in some of the most important buildings constructed in the Latin East, not least among them, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The elbow column, "An Original Crusader Creation" as Esther Grabiner referred to it, is a type of bracket or corbel in the form of a column or double column projecting horizontally from a wall and immediately or almost immediately bending vertically, like an elbow.* It is topped with a carved capital and abacus on which it supports a transverse arch. It takes the weight of a vault down and out into the thickness of the wall. Grabiner notes that there are some seventy examples found in the ecclesiastical architecture of the twelfth century kingdom of Jerusalem. Almost all are found in Jerusalem itself or in buildings in its vicinity, the only exceptions being four examples carved in basalt from Belvoir Castle. As the latter may also be the product of Jerusalem artisans, it is possible that this was a form that evolved in Jerusalem. As such it would be a unique contribution of the Latin East to Romanesque architecture, though one that appears to have had negligible impact on European Romanesque. Nonetheless, the choice of this element in the ecclesiastical architecture of the Holy City goes some way to rehabilitating this not so much maligned as overlooked feature of the human anatomy.

Interior of Crusader Church at Abu Ghosh Section from photograph in the Matson Collection / Public domain

*Esther Grabiner, "The Elbow Column: An Original Crusader Creation", in Silvia Rozenberg, ed., Knights in the Holy Land, Jerusamem, 1999, pp. 193-201.