Relief is a sculptural technique where the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background of the same material. The term relief is from the Latin verb relevo, to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane.What is actually performed when a relief is cut in from a flat surface of stone (relief sculpture) or wood (relief carving) is a lowering of the field, leaving the unsculpted parts seemingly raised. The technique involves considerable chiselling away of the background, which is a time-consuming exercise. On the other hand, a relief saves forming the rear of a subject, and is less fragile and more securely fixed than a sculpture in the round, especially one of a standing figure where the ankles are a potential weak point, especially in stone. In other materials such as metal, clay, plaster stucco, ceramics or papier-mâché the form can be just added to or raised up from the background, and monumental bronze reliefs are made by casting.
There are different degrees of relief depending on the degree of projection of the sculpted form from the field, for which the Italian and French terms are still sometimes used in English. The full range includes high relief (alto-rilievo, haut-relief), [baʁəljɛf] ), and shallow-relief or rilievo schiacciato, where the plane is only very slightly lower than the sculpted elements. There is also sunk relief, which was mainly restricted to Ancient Egypt (see below). However, the distinction between high relief and low relief is the clearest and most important, and these two are generally the only terms used to discuss most work.where more than 50% of the depth is shown and there may be undercut areas, mid-relief (mezzo-rilievo), low relief (basso-rilievo, or French: bas-relief (French pronunciation:
The definition of these terms is somewhat variable, and many works combine areas in more than one of them, sometimes sliding between them in a single figure; accordingly some writers prefer to avoid all distinctions.The opposite of relief sculpture is counter-relief, intaglio, or cavo-rilievo, where the form is cut into the field or background rather than rising from it; this is very rare in monumental sculpture. Hyphens may or may not be used in all these terms, though they are rarely seen in "sunk relief" and are usual in "bas-relief" and "counter-relief". Works in the technique are described as "in relief", and, especially in monumental sculpture, the work itself is "a relief".
Reliefs are common throughout the world on the walls of buildings and a variety of smaller settings, and a sequence of several panels or sections of relief may represent an extended narrative. Relief is more suitable for depicting complicated subjects with many figures and very active poses, such as battles, than free-standing "sculpture in the round". Most ancient architectural reliefs were originally painted, which helped to define forms in low relief. The subject of reliefs is for convenient reference assumed in this article to be usually figures, but sculpture in relief often depicts decorative geometrical or foliage patterns, as in the arabesques of Islamic art, and may be of any subject.
Rock reliefs are those carved into solid rock in the open air (if inside caves, whether natural or man-made, they are more likely to be called "rock-cut"). This type is found in many cultures, in particular those of the Ancient Near East and Buddhist countries. A stele is a single standing stone; many of these carry reliefs.
The distinction between high and low relief is somewhat subjective, and the two are very often combined in a single work. In particular, most later "high reliefs" contain sections in low relief, usually in the background. From the Parthenon Frieze onwards, many single figures in large monumental sculpture have heads in high relief, but their lower legs are in low relief. The slightly projecting figures created in this way work well in reliefs that are seen from below, and reflect that the heads of figures are usually of more interest to both artist and viewer than the legs or feet. As unfinished examples from various periods show, raised reliefs, whether high or low, were normally "blocked out" by marking the outline of the figure and reducing the background areas to the new background level, work no doubt performed by apprentices (see gallery).
A low relief is a projecting image with a shallow overall depth, for example used on coins, on which all images are in low relief. In the lowest reliefs the relative depth of the elements shown is completely distorted, and if seen from the side the image makes no sense, but from the front the small variations in depth register as a three-dimensional image. Other versions distort depth much less. The term comes from the Italian basso rilievo via the French bas-relief (French pronunciation: [baʁəljɛf] ), both meaning "low relief". The former is now a very old-fashioned term in English, and the latter is becoming so.
It is a technique which requires less work, and is therefore cheaper to produce, as less of the background needs to be removed in a carving, or less modelling is required. In the art of Ancient Egypt, Assyrian palace reliefs, and other ancient Near Eastern and Asian cultures, a consistent very low relief was commonly used for the whole composition. These images would usually be painted after carving, which helped define the forms; today the paint has worn off in the great majority of surviving examples, but minute, invisible remains of paint can usually be discovered through chemical means.
The Ishtar Gate of Babylon, now in Berlin, has low reliefs of large animals formed from moulded bricks, glazed in colour. Plaster, which made the technique far easier, was widely used in Egypt and the Near East from antiquity into Islamic times (latterly for architectural decoration, as at the Alhambra), Rome, and Europe from at least the Renaissance, as well as probably elsewhere. However, it needs very good conditions to survive long in unmaintained buildings – Roman decorative plasterwork is mainly known from Pompeii and other sites buried by ash from Mount Vesuvius. Low relief was relatively rare in Western medieval art, but may be found, for example in wooden figures or scenes on the insides of the folding wings of multi-panel altarpieces.
The revival of low relief, which was seen as a classical style, begins early in the Renaissance; the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, a pioneering classicist building, designed by Leon Battista Alberti around 1450, uses low reliefs by Agostino di Duccio inside and on the external walls. Since the Renaissance plaster has been very widely used for indoor ornamental work such as cornices and ceilings, but in the 16th century it was used for large figures (many also using high relief) at the Chateau of Fontainebleau, which were imitated more crudely elsewhere, for example in the Elizabethan Hardwick Hall.
Shallow-relief, in Italian rilievo stiacciato or rilievo schicciato ("squashed relief"), is a very shallow relief, which merges into engraving in places, and can be hard to read in photographs. It is often used for the background areas of compositions with the main elements in low-relief, but its use over a whole (usually rather small) piece was perfected by the Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello.
In later Western art, until a 20th-century revival, low relief was used mostly for smaller works or combined with higher relief to convey a sense of distance, or to give depth to the composition, especially for scenes with many figures and a landscape or architectural background, in the same way that lighter colours are used for the same purpose in painting. Thus figures in the foreground are sculpted in high-relief, those in the background in low-relief. Low relief may use any medium or technique of sculpture, stone carving and metal casting being most common. Large architectural compositions all in low relief saw a revival in the 20th century, being popular on buildings in Art Deco and related styles, which borrowed from the ancient low reliefs now available in museums.Some sculptors, including Eric Gill, have adopted the "squashed" depth of low relief in works that are actually free-standing.
Mid-relief, "half-relief" or mezzo-rilievo is somewhat imprecisely defined, and the term is not often used in English, the works usually being described as low relief instead. The typical traditional definition is that only up to half of the subject projects, and no elements are undercut or fully disengaged from the background field. The depth of the elements shown is normally somewhat distorted.
Mid-relief is probably the most common type of relief found in the Hindu and Buddhist art of India and Southeast Asia. The low to mid-reliefs of 2nd-century BCE to 6th-century CE Ajanta Caves and 5th to 10th-century Ellora Caves in India are rock reliefs. Most of these reliefs are used to narrate sacred scriptures, such as the 1,460 panels of the 9th-century Borobudur temple in Central Java, Indonesia, narrating the Jataka tales or lives of the Buddha. Other examples are low reliefs narrating the Ramayana Hindu epic in Prambanan temple, also in Java, in Cambodia, the temples of Angkor, with scenes including the Samudra manthan or "Churning the Ocean of Milk" at the 12th-century Angkor Wat, and reliefs of apsaras. At Bayon temple in Angkor Thom there are scenes of daily life in the Khmer Empire.
High relief (or altorilievo, from Italian) is where in general more than half the mass of the sculpted figure projects from the background. Indeed, the most prominent elements of the composition, especially heads and limbs, are often completely undercut, detaching them from the field. The parts of the subject that are seen are normally depicted at their full depth, unlike low relief where the elements seen are "squashed" flatter. High relief thus uses essentially the same style and techniques as free-standing sculpture, and in the case of a single figure gives largely the same view as a person standing directly in front of a free-standing statue would have. All cultures and periods in which large sculptures were created used this technique in monumental sculpture and architecture.
Most of the many grand figure reliefs in Ancient Greek sculpture used a very "high" version of high relief, with elements often fully free of the background, and parts of figures crossing over each other to indicate depth. The metopes of the Parthenon have largely lost their fully rounded elements, except for heads, showing the advantages of relief in terms of durability. High relief has remained the dominant form for reliefs with figures in Western sculpture, also being common in Indian temple sculpture. Smaller Greek sculptures such as private tombs, and smaller decorative areas such as friezes on large buildings, more often used low relief.
Hellenistic and Roman sarcophagus reliefs were cut with a drill rather than chisels, enabling and encouraging compositions extremely crowded with figures, like the Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus (250–260 CE). These are also seen in the enormous strips of reliefs that wound around Roman triumphal columns. The sarcophagi in particular exerted a huge influence on later Western sculpture. The European Middle Ages tended to use high relief for all purposes in stone, though like Ancient Roman sculpture, their reliefs were typically not as high as in Ancient Greece.Very high relief re-emerged in the Renaissance, and was especially used in wall-mounted funerary art and later on Neoclassical pediments and public monuments.
In the Buddhist and Hindu art of India and Southeast Asia, high relief can also be found, although it is not as common as low to mid-reliefs. Famous examples of Indian high reliefs can be found at the Khajuraho temples, with voluptuous, twisting figures that often illustrate the erotic Kamasutra positions. In the 9th-century Prambanan temple, Central Java, high reliefs of Lokapala devatas, the guardians of deities of the directions, are found.
The largest high relief sculpture in the world is the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in the U.S. state of Georgia, which was cut 42 feet deep into the mountain,and measures 90 feet in height, 190 feet in width, and lies 400 feet above the ground.
Sunk or sunken relief is largely restricted to the art of Ancient Egypt where it is very common, becoming after the Amarna period of Ahkenaten the dominant type used, as opposed to low relief. It had been used earlier, but mainly for large reliefs on external walls, and for hieroglyphs and cartouches. The image is made by cutting the relief sculpture itself into a flat surface. In a simpler form the images are usually mostly linear in nature, like hieroglyphs, but in most cases the figure itself is in low relief, but set within a sunken area shaped round the image, so that the relief never rises beyond the original flat surface. In some cases the figures and other elements are in a very low relief that does not rise to the original surface, but others are modeled more fully, with some areas rising to the original surface. This method minimizes the work removing the background, while allowing normal relief modelling.
The technique is most successful with strong sunlight to emphasise the outlines and forms by shadow, as no attempt was made to soften the edge of the sunk area, leaving a face at a right-angle to the surface all around it. Some reliefs, especially funerary monuments with heads or busts from ancient Rome and later Western art, leave a "frame" at the original level around the edge of the relief, or place a head in a hemispherical recess in the block (see Roman example in gallery). Though essentially very similar to Egyptian sunk relief, but with a background space at the lower level around the figure, the term would not normally be used of such works.
It is also used for carving letters (typically om mani padme hum ) in the mani stones of Tibetan Buddhism.
Sunk relief technique is not to be confused with "counter-relief" or intaglio as seen on engraved gem seals—where an image is fully modeled in a "negative" manner. The image goes into the surface, so that when impressed on wax it gives an impression in normal relief. However many engraved gems were carved in cameo or normal relief.
A few very late Hellenistic monumental carvings in Egypt use full "negative" modelling as though on a gem seal, perhaps as sculptors trained in the Greek tradition attempted to use traditional Egyptian conventions.
Small-scale reliefs have been carved in various materials, notably ivory, wood, and wax. Reliefs are often found in decorative arts such as ceramics and metalwork; these are less often described as "reliefs" than as "in relief". Small bronze reliefs are often in the form of "plaques" or plaquettes, which may be set in furniture or framed, or just kept as they are, a popular form for European collectors, especially in the Renaissance.
Various modelling techniques are used, such repoussé ("pushed-back") in metalwork, where a thin metal plate is shaped from behind using various metal or wood punches, producing a relief image. Casting has also been widely used in bronze and other metals. Casting and repoussé are often used in concert in to speed up production and add greater detail to the final relief. In stone, as well as engraved gems, larger hardstone carvings in semi-precious stones have been highly prestigious since ancient times in many Eurasian cultures. Reliefs in wax were produced at least from the Renaissance.
Carved ivory reliefs have been used since ancient times, and because the material, though expensive, cannot usually be reused, they have a relatively high survival rate, and for example consular diptychs represent a large proportion of the survivals of portable secular art from Late Antiquity. In the Gothic period the carving of ivory reliefs became a considerable luxury industry in Paris and other centres. As well as small diptychs and triptychs with densely packed religious scenes, usually from the New Testament, secular objects, usually in a lower relief, were also produced.
These were often round mirror-cases, combs, handles, and other small items, but included a few larger caskets like the Casket with Scenes of Romances (Walters 71264) in Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States. Originally they were very often painted in bright colours. Reliefs can be impressed by stamps onto clay, or the clay pressed into a mould bearing the design, as was usual with the mass-produced terra sigillata of Ancient Roman pottery. Decorative reliefs in plaster or stucco may be much larger; this form of architectural decoration is found in many styles of interiors in the post-Renaissance West, and in Islamic architecture.
Modern artists such as Paul Gauguin, Ernst Barlach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore up to Ewald Matare have created reliefs, in contemporary art, for example, Ingo Kühl should be mentioned.
Notable examples of monumental reliefs include:
Alabaster is a mineral or rock that is soft, often used for carving, and is processed for plaster powder. Archaeologists and the stone processing industry use the word differently from geologists. The former use it in a wider sense that includes varieties of two different minerals: the fine-grained massive type of gypsum and the fine-grained banded type of calcite. Geologists define alabaster only as the gypsum type. Chemically, gypsum is a hydrous sulfate of calcium, while calcite is a carbonate of calcium.
Khmer architecture, also known as Angkorian architecture, is the architecture produced by the Khmers during the Angkor period of the Khmer Empire from approximately the later half of the 8th century CE to the first half of the 15th century CE.
Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. It is one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving and modelling, in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since Modernism, there has been an almost complete freedom of materials and process. A wide variety of materials may be worked by removal such as carving, assembled by welding or modelling, or moulded or cast.
Terracotta, terra cotta, or terra-cotta, a type of earthenware, is a clay-based unglazed or glazed ceramic, where the fired body is porous. Terracotta is the term normally used for sculpture made in earthenware, and also for various practical uses including vessels, water and waste water pipes, roofing tiles, bricks, and surface embellishment in building construction. The term is also used to refer to the natural brownish orange color of most terracotta.
Ancient art refers to the many types of a art produced by the advanced cultures of ancient societies with some form of writing, such as those of ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The art of pre-literate societies is normally referred to as Prehistoric art and is not covered here. Although some Pre-Columbian cultures developed writing during the centuries before the arrival of Europeans, on grounds of dating these are covered at Pre-Columbian art, and articles such as Maya art and Aztec art. Olmec art is mentioned below.
The art of Ancient Rome, its Republic and later Empire includes architecture, painting, sculpture and mosaic work. Luxury objects in metal-work, gem engraving, ivory carvings, and glass are sometimes considered to be minor forms of Roman art, although they were not considered as such at the time. Sculpture was perhaps considered as the highest form of art by Romans, but figure painting was also highly regarded. A very large body of sculpture has survived from about the 1st century BC onward, though very little from before, but very little painting remains, and probably nothing that a contemporary would have considered to be of the highest quality.
Pietra dura or pietre dure, called parchin kari or parchinkari in the Indian Subcontinent, is a term for the inlay technique of using cut and fitted, highly polished colored stones to create images. It is considered a decorative art. The stonework, after the work is assembled loosely, is glued stone-by-stone to a substrate after having previously been "sliced and cut in different shape sections; and then assembled together so precisely that the contact between each section was practically invisible". Stability was achieved by grooving the undersides of the stones so that they interlocked, rather like a jigsaw puzzle, with everything held tautly in place by an encircling 'frame'. Many different colored stones, particularly marbles, were used, along with semiprecious, and even precious stones. It first appeared in Rome in the 16th century, reaching its full maturity in Florence. Pietra dura items are generally crafted on green, white or black marble base stones. Typically, the resulting panel is completely flat, but some examples where the image is in low relief were made, taking the work more into the area of hardstone carving.
Ancient Egyptian art refers to art produced in ancient Egypt between the 6th century BC and the 4th century AD, spanning from Prehistoric Egypt until the Christianization of Roman Egypt. It includes paintings, sculptures, drawings on papyrus, faience, jewelry, ivories, architecture, and other art media. It is also very conservative: the art style changed very little over time. Much of the surviving art comes from tombs and monuments, giving more insight into the ancient Egyptian afterlife beliefs.
Amarna art, or the Amarna style, is a style adopted in the Amarna Period during and just after the reign of Akhenaten in the late Eighteenth Dynasty, during the New Kingdom. Whereas Ancient Egyptian art was famously slow to alter, the Amarna style was a significant and sudden break from its predecessor, which was restored after Akhenaten's death. It is characterized by a sense of movement and activity in images, with figures having raised heads, many figures overlapping and many scenes busy and crowded. The human body is portrayed differently; figures, always shown in profile on reliefs, are slender, swaying, with exaggerated extremities. In particular, depictions of Akhenaten give him distinctly feminine qualities such as large hips, prominent breasts, and a larger stomach and thighs. Other pieces, such as the most famous of all Amarna works, the Nefertiti Bust in Berlin, show much less pronounced features of the style.
Classical sculpture refers generally to sculpture from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, as well as the Hellenized and Romanized civilizations under their rule or influence, from about 500 BC to around 200 AD. It may also refer more precisely a period within Ancient Greek sculpture from around 500 BC to the onset of the Hellenistic style around 323 BC, in this case usually given a capital "C". The term "classical" is also widely used for a stylistic tendency in later sculpture, not restricted to works in a Neoclassical or classical style.
Sculpture in the Indian subcontinent, partly because of the climate of the Indian subcontinent makes the long-term survival of organic materials difficult, essentially consists of sculpture of stone, metal or terracotta. It is clear there was a great deal of painting, and sculpture in wood and ivory, during these periods, but there are only a few survivals. The main Indian religions had all, after hesitant starts, developed the use of religious sculpture by around the start of the Common Era, and the use of stone was becoming increasingly widespread.
Hellenistic art is the art of the Hellenistic period generally taken to begin with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and end with the conquest of the Greek world by the Romans, a process well underway by 146 BCE, when the Greek mainland was taken, and essentially ending in 30 BCE with the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt following the Battle of Actium. A number of the best-known works of Greek sculpture belong to this period, including Laocoön and His Sons, Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. It follows the period of Classical Greek art, while the succeeding Greco-Roman art was very largely a continuation of Hellenistic trends.
Ancient Mayan art is about the material arts of the Mayan civilization, an eastern and south-eastern Mesoamerican culture shared by a great number of lost kingdoms in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. Many regional artistic traditions existed side by side, usually coinciding with the changing boundaries of Maya polities. This civilization took shape in the course of the later Preclassic Period, when the first cities and monumental architecture started to develop and the hieroglyphic script came into being. Its greatest artistic flowering occurred during the seven centuries of the Classic Period.
Architectural sculpture is the use of sculptural techniques by an architect and/or sculptor in the design of a building, bridge, mausoleum or other such project. The sculpture is usually integrated with the structure, but freestanding works that are part of the original design are also considered to be architectural sculpture. The concept overlaps with, or is a subset of, monumental sculpture.
The term monumental sculpture is often used in art history and criticism, but not always consistently. It combines two concepts, one of function, and one of size, and may include an element of a third more subjective concept. It is often used for all sculptures that are large. Human figures that are perhaps half life-size or above would usually be considered monumental in this sense by art historians, although in contemporary art a rather larger overall scale is implied. Monumental sculpture is therefore distinguished from small portable figurines, small metal or ivory reliefs, diptychs and the like.
Hardstone carving is a general term in art history and archaeology for the artistic carving of predominantly semi-precious stones, such as jade, rock crystal, agate, onyx, jasper, serpentinite, or carnelian, and for an object made in this way. Normally the objects are small, and the category overlaps with both jewellery and sculpture. Hardstone carving is sometimes referred to by the Italian term pietre dure; however, pietra dura is the common term used for stone inlay work, which causes some confusion.
Vahanas or "vehicles" of Hindu Gods are mythical characters having significant religious value. Temples in India use depictions of these vehicles in many forms during temple processions. National Museum, New Delhi houses a collection of Carved Wood Vahanas in the gallery of decorative arts. This collection at the National Museum is unique among museums in India, which includes large images of Garuda, Hanuman, elephant, horse, swan and lion and these artefacts are mostly from the period between the 17th and 20th century. Ancient Indian temples house numerous kinds of wood carvings having religious context to be used for various temple activities. The majority of Vahanas are made of wood and decorated with designs made with varied techniques. Vahanas have been mentioned in temple inscriptions dating back to the 13th century.
Ancient Greek art stands out among that of other ancient cultures for its development of naturalistic but idealized depictions of the human body, in which largely nude male figures were generally the focus of innovation. The rate of stylistic development between about 750 and 300 BC was remarkable by ancient standards, and in surviving works is best seen in sculpture. There were important innovations in painting, which have to be essentially reconstructed due to the lack of original survivals of quality, other than the distinct field of painted pottery.
A rock relief or rock-cut relief is a relief sculpture carved on solid or "living rock" such as a cliff, rather than a detached piece of stone. They are a category of rock art, and sometimes found as part of, or in conjunction with, rock-cut architecture. However, they tend to be omitted in most works on rock art, which concentrate on engravings and paintings by prehistoric peoples. A few such works exploit the natural contours of the rock and use them to define an image, but they do not amount to man-made reliefs. Rock reliefs have been made in many cultures throughout human history, and were especially important in the art of the ancient Near East. Rock reliefs are generally fairly large, as they need to be in order to have an impact in the open air. Most of those discussed here have figures that are over life-size, and in many the figures are multiples of life-size.
Assyrian sculpture is the sculpture of the ancient Assyrian states, especially the Neo-Assyrian Empire of 911 to 612 BC, which ruled modern Iraq, Syria, and parts of Iran. It forms a phase of the art of Mesopotamia, differing in particular because of its much greater use of stone and gypsum alabaster for large sculpture.
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