Relief Sculptures

Relief, or relievo rilievo, is a sculptural technique. The term relief is from the Latin verb levo, 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 or wood 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 with little artistic effect if the lowered background is left plain, as is often the case. 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-mache 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 appellations are still sometimes used. The full range includes high relief (alto-rilievo), 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), and shallow-relief or rilievo schiacciato,[2] where the plane is scarcely more than scratched in order to remove background material. There is also sunk relief, which was mainly restricted to Ancient Egypt. 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. 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.

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.

Types

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 have heads in high relief, but their lower legs are in in low relief; the slightly projecting figures created in this way work well in reliefs that are seen from below (see Moissac portal in gallery). 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). 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”.

Some sculptors, including Eric Gill, have adopted the “squashed” depth of low relief in works that are actually free-standing.

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