Relief Sculpture

What is a Relief Sculpture?

A “relief” sculpture is a sculpture where the foreground elements are attached to and made of the same material as the background.

“Relief” comes from the latin root “relevo”, which means “to raise”, as the sculpted elements of the artwork are “raised” up from the background.  These works are sometimes referred to as a “rilievo”.

However not all relief sculptures have foreground raised or protruding from the background.  In some cases the foreground is “sunken” into the background (these are referred to as “sunken” reliefs, see more below).

Relief sculpture is often viewed in contrast to a “free standing” sculpture (otherwise known as “sculpture in the round”), which are not attached to a background and are viewable from all sides.

It’s also seen as a combination between 2D painting and 3D sculpting.  The term

Types of Relief Sculptures

Relief sculptures are generally classified by how much the foreground is raised (or lowered) from the background.   The four common classifications are: high, medium, low, and sunken.

High Relief

In High Relief (also known as alto-rilievo), the sculpture protrudes at least half of its circumference from the background, and in some places may even being fully or mostly detached from the background.

One of the most famous high relief sculptures is Mount Rushmore, with the famous presidential faces largely projected out of the mountain, but still very much attached to the background.

Notable Examples of High Relief Sculptures

  • The Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs (Centauromachia), 1491-92, marble, 33 1/4 x 35 5/8 inches (84.5 x 90.5 cm)Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564), Casa Buonarroti, Florence.
  • Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, 1848-1907), Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial, Boston, 1897-1900, high relief in plaster.

Middle Relief

In Middle Relief (also known as mezzo-rilievo), the protrusion of the sculptures falls about half-way between that of high relief and low relief.

Low Relief

In Low Relief (also known as basso-rilievo or bas-relief), the foreground only extends slightly from the background.

While there are many classical works of low relief sculpture throughout history, the most common and easily accessible is the common coin!  The slightly raised design of the coin inscriptions (i.e. “In God We Trust” on American coins), the portraits (i.e. George Washington on the American Quarter), or landscapes (i.e. the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the American Penny) are all low relief sculptures.

One important sub-type of low relief is Statacciato Relief (rilievo schiacciato), which is a very rare and subtle form of low relief sculpting, dominated by Donatello in the 15th century.  In this type of sculpting the incisions made in the material are very small, only millimeters at most.  The sculptor can leverage varying depths of the incisions as well as the effects of shadow (most effective on white marble) to give perspective and the illusion of depth.

Sunken Relief

In Sunken Relief (also called “hollow”, “intaglio”, “incised”, or “coelanaglyphic”), the background acts as the highest point of the sculpture and the foreground is sunken into it.

The most common and famous examples of these types of sculptures came from ancient Egypt, with some others coming from India.

Notable Relief Sculpture Artworks

  • Venus of Laussel (c.23,000 BCE) Dordogne
  • Salmon of the Abri du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE) Dordogne
  • Tuc d’Audoubert Bison (c.13,500 BCE) Ariege, France
  • Gobekli Tepe Animal reliefs and other megalithic art (c.9000 BCE)
  • Babylonia, Walking Lion and the Ishtar-Gate of Babylon, glazed brick reliefs, 6th century BCE, Near-Eastern Museum, Berlin.
  • Parthenon Reliefs (c.446-430 BCE), Acropolis Museum
  • Greece, Grave stele of a little girl with doves, c. 450-440 BCE, Parian marble relief, height 31 1/2 inches (80 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
  • Greece, Athens, c. 400 BCE, Grave Stele, marble, 40.4 x 17 x 6 inches (102.5 x 43.25 x 15.25 cm), J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA.
  • Temple of Apollo Epikourios, East Frieze (c.420 BCE)
  • Mausoleum of Harlicarnassus, Amazon Frieze (c.350 BCE)
  • Thrace, Tetradrachm of Lysimachos, 323-281 BCE, silver.
  • Pergamon Altar of Zeus (c.180 BCE) Pergamon Museum Berlin
  • Ara Pacis Augustae (c.10 BCE)
  • Trajan’s Column, Rome (106-113 CE)
  • Arch of Constantine, Rome (315 CE)
  • The Last Judgment, Saint-Lazare Cathedral (1145) Gislebertus
  • Angkor Wat Khmer Temple, Cambodia (c.1150)
  • Assyria, Stone Relief, alabaster, 130 x 73 cm, Near-Eastern Museum, Berlin.
  • Vecchietta (Lorenzo di Piero di Giovanni) (Italian, 1410-1480), The Resurrection, 1472, bronze, height 21 3/8 inches (54.3 cm), width 16 1/4 inches (41.2 cm), Frick Collection, NY.
  • Feast of Herod Baptismal Font (1425) Donatello
  • Doors of Paradise, Baptistery, Florence (1452) Ghiberti
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564), The Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs (Centauromachia), 1491-92, marble, 33 1/4 x 35 5/8 inches (84.5 x 90.5 cm), Casa Buonarroti, Florence.
  • Alessandro Algardi (Italian, 1598-1654), Pietà, 1630-40, octagonal bronze relief, excluding flange: 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 inches (29.8 x 29.8 cm), Frick Collection, NY.
  • St Cecilia (1600) Stefano Maderno, Rome
  • St Veronica (1639) St Peter’s Basilica, by Francesco Mochi
  • Ecstasy of St Teresa, Cornaro Chapel (1652) Bernini
  • La Marseillaise (1836) by Francois Rude, Nice
  • Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903), Forest of the House of Joy, 1902, bas-relief, paint on sequoia wood, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
  • Gates of Hell (1880-1917) by Auguste Rodin: Rodin Museum Philadelphia
  • Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, 1848-1907), Amor Caritas, 1880-98, this cast 1918, gilded-bronze relief, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
  • Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Samuel G. Ward, 1881, bronze, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
  • Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial, 1897-1900, high relief in patinated plaster, National Gallery, Washington, DC. (Edward Zwick, 1989).
  • Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), Back III, 1916-1917, bas-relief in bronze, 185 x 111.5 x 22.5 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
  • Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), Still Life, 1914, painted wood and upholstery fringe, relief, 25.4 x 45.7 x 9.2 cm, Tate Gallery, London.
  • Ben Nicholson, OM (English, 1894-1982), 1934 (relief), 1934, oil on wood, relief, 71.8 x 96.5 x 3.2 cm, Tate Gallery, London.
  • Charles Biederman (American, 1906-2004), Structurist Relief, Red Wing No. 20, 1954-65, oil on metal, 104.8 x 14.9 cm, Tate Gallery, London.
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial (1927-41) South Dakota
  • Confederacy Monument Stone Mountain (1958-70) WK Hancock
  • Mary Martin (English, 1907-1969), Black Relief, 1957-c. 1966, painted wood, board and plastic relief, 76.4 x 114.0 x 14.8 cm, Tate Gallery, London.
  • Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997), Wall Explosion II, 1965, enamel on steel relief, 170.2 x 188.0 x 10.2 cm, 110 kg, Tate Gallery, London.
  • Mark Boyle (English, 1934-), Holland Park Avenue Study, 1967, relief, 238.8 x 238.8 x 11.4 cm, Tate Gallery, London.
  • Charles Ray (American, contemporary), Bath, 1989, porcelain bathtub, brass, aluminum and water, 60 x 29 1/2 x 21 inches, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

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