Fireplace Mantel Styles – Form, Function, and Design through the Years

The fireplace mantel is familiar to us all as a symbol of home and comfort. Yet as universal as the fireplace mantel may seem, it has meant different things at different times in history-serving once not only as a source of heat, but as a means of cooking, with some fireplace mantels reaching an enormous width that could accommodate several cooks and roasting joint. Fireplace mantel or simply mantel, also known as fireplace surround, hood, or any other similar projection, usually ornamented, that surround the opening of a fireplace that directs smokes to the chimney flue originated in medieval times as a hood that projected over a grate to catch the smoke. The term has evolved to include the decorative framework, usually stone, around the fireplace, and can include elaborate designs extending to the ceiling, also known as over-mantels. Mantel is now the general term for the jambs, mantel shelf, and external accessories of a fireplace. For many centuries, the mantel was the most ornamental and most artistic feature of a room, but as fireplaces have become smaller, and modern methods of heating have been introduced, its artistic as well as its practical significance has lessened.

Fireplace mantels of early days
Up until the twelfth century, fires were simply made in the middle of a home by fires on the hearth with smoke vented out the lantern in the roof. As time went on, the placement of fireplaces moved to the wall, incorporating chimneys to vent the smoke. This permitted the design of a very elaborate, rich, architectural focal point for a grand room.
The earliest known fireplace mantel is in the Kings House at Southampton, with Norman shafts in the joints carrying a segmental arch, which is attributed to the first half of the twelfth century. At a later date, in consequence of the greater width of the fireplace, flat or segmental arches were thrown across and constructed with archivolt, sometimes joggled, with the thrust of the arch being resisted by bars of iron at the back.
In domestic work of the fourteenth century, the fireplace mantel was greatly increased in order to allow of the members of the family sitting on either side of the fire on the hearth, and in these cases great beams of timber were employed to carry the hood; in such cases the fireplace was so deeply recessed as to become externally an important architectural feature, as at Haddon Hall. The largest fireplace mantel existing is in the great hall of the Palais des Comtes at Poitiers, which is nearly 30 feet wide, having two intermediate supports to carry the hood; the stone flues are carried up between the tracery of an immense window above.
The history of carved mantels is a fundamental element in the history of western art. Every element of European sculpture can be seen on great mantels. Many of the historically noted sculptors of the past i.e. Augustus St. Gaudens designed and carved magnificent mantels, some of which can be found on display in the world’s great museums. Exactly as the facade of a building is distinguished by its design, proportion, and detail so it is with fine mantels. The attention to carved detail is what defines a great mantel.

Fireplace mantels today
Up to the late 20th century and the invention of central-air heating systems, rooms were heated by an open or central fire. A modern fireplace mantel usually serves as an element to enhance the grandeur of an interior space rather than as a heat source. However, most modern fireplace still have real fire in them because the intense feeling of personal security that a real fire projects-with its leaping flames and warm, cozy light-can never be replaced or reproduced within rooms with artificial forms of heating. Today, fireplace mantels of varying quality, materials and style are available worldwide. The fireplace mantels of today often incorporate the architecture of two or more periods or cultures.
By John Pham, Mantel Depot, Inc.