Bas-relief, a sculpture executed upon and attached to a flat surface. The usual impression produced by an artistic relief is that about one-half of the actual proportions of the object are being seen in their third dimension of depth. Strictly speaking, however, relief sculpture is subdivided into various kinds. In alto-rilievo (It. for high relief) the figures are sculptured partly or wholly in the round, that is, they project entirely, or almost entirely, from the surface of the block in which they are cut. The metopes from the Parthenon (Elgin Marbles) now in the British Museum, are among the best examples of alto-rilievo. Mezzo-rilievo (It. for semi-relief; Fr., demi-relief) presents figures that are rounded to half their natural proportions, but without detached parts. Basso-rilievo (It. for low-relief; Fr., bas-relief) is a form of surface-ornamentation in which the projection is very slight. The finest known specimen of low relief is the frieze around the cella of the Parthenon; large portions of it are to be seen in the British Museum. The lowest kind of relief is that described by the Tuscan term rilievo-stiacciato (depressed or flattened relief). This scarcely rises from the surface upon which if is carved, and is mostly an art of fine lines and delicate indications. Donatello‘s Florentine Madonnas and saints are among the best examples. Finally cavo-rilievo (It. for hollow relief; Fr., relief-en-creux) is a method of concave sculpture in which the highest part or outline is on a level with the surface, while the roundness is considerably below it. Cavo-rilievo was practiced chiefly by the Egyptians whose hollow reliefs are known by the Greek term Koilanaglyphs.
Relief is the form of sculpture that comes nearest to painting, both having composition, perspective, and the play of light and shadow. Relief would seem to have much in common with drawing, though in reality less importance attaches to line than to the modeling of contour and to the true and effective rendering of chiaroscuro. The human form is undoubtedly the proper object of relief, which appears to be particularly suited to the representation of numerous figures in action. In the Greek and Roman classic reliefs these figures are usually in processional order, engaged in historic or military events, or in the ceremonial of worship. Relief is well suited, also, to the portrayal of series of scenes, as in the bronze doors of various Italian baptisteries illustrating the Old and the New Testament. Figures and objects in relief are generally worked out in the same material as the background, though there are exceptions to this rule in Greek art, and in the decorative work of the Chinese and Japanese. In the larger reliefs marble, bronze, and terra-cotta are used exclusively; while in smaller works the precious metals and stones, ivory, stucco, enamel, wood, etc., predominate. The reliefs of the Egyptians and Assyrians, not highly plastic, were made more effective by the introduction of strong colors. The early Greeks also made use of polychromy, as instanced in the metope relief in the Museum of Palermo. In Gothic art and in the Renaissance it was the custom to tint wood, terra-cotta, and stucco, but not marble or stone. Relief is one of the earliest forms of sculpture practiced, and probably originated with the stone-cutters of prehistoric days, though clay and wood are supposed to have been the earliest materials employed, owing to greater facility in moulding and carving them.
There is reason to believe that relief sculpture existed before the introduction of sculpture in the round, or when only rude figures of the deities had been attempted. The Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites practiced it contemporaneously with sculpture in the round. The Egyptians, though they employed a kind of low relief, especially on the interiors of buildings, made a still greater use of Koilanaglyphs. The Greeks, conceiving relief sculpture in its purely plastic sense, achieved the greatest mastery of the art. With them it was used both as an ornament and as an integral part of the plan when allied with architecture. Distinguishing strictly between high and low relief, they used the former between the triglyphs, and in the tympana of the temples, and the latter in friezes, tombstones, etc. Certain fixed principles governed the Greek relief: the spaces were adequately filled, the backgrounds never carved, and it was a rule that all heads should be at the same height from the base, whether the figures sat, rode, or stood (Isokephaleia). In the Hellenistic period a more picturesque and dramatic form of composition prevailed, and the backgrounds were carved in pictorial style. With the Etruscans relief was applied mainly in the artistic handicrafts. In Rome it frequently degenerated into a pictorial mode in which several planes were employed, but examples are still extant that are highly classic, e.g. the groups of the Arch of Titus, the continuous winding reliefs of the Column of Trajan, imperial sarcophagi (in the Vatican), and reliefs of the Capitol Museum, Rome. The Romans no doubt owed their finest reliefs to the Greek artists they harbored and employed upon themes taken from the history of Rome.
The Christian Era inaugurated what might be mistaken for a new art, but the change was in subject more than in mode, for all the early examples show a great similarity to antique models in form, pose, and drapery. Christian relief appears mainly in the sarcophagi with their Biblical, Apostolic, or symbolic subjects: Daniel in the lions’ den, Moses striking water from the rock, the adoration of the Magi, the raising of Lazarus, the Good Shepherd. Heathen myths are also used, invested with a new significance: Orpheus is Christ, drawing the creatures of the wild by the sweet strains of his music; Ulysses attached to the mast is believed to typify the Crucifixion (O. Marucchi). Occasionally a carving on a Catacomb tombstone shows real merit, and the lamps adorned with Christian symbols are frequently artistic. As they depart from the classic tradition, however, Christian reliefs grow ruder and more imperfect. Those of the latter part of the second and the third century have little merit. The fourth century, in spite of the decline, bequeathes some specimens, now in the Lateran Museum; the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus in the vaults of St. Peter’s is highly esteemed as a work of art. When the Christian basilica replaced the cubiculum the influence of imperial Constantinople had substituted mosaics for both sculpture and painting. The few reliefs of that period that have survived bear a strongly Byzantine character, which is also apparent in all early Frankish workmanship, reliefs, ivory diptychs, etc. The reliefs of Ravenna, from the time of Theodoric, show the same influence in combination with the Teutonic spirit, as in the sixth-century sculptures of San Vitale. In figure-carving, however, there is a distinct tending from symbolism to realism. The rude Lombardic bas-reliefs of Milan and Brescia frequently border on the grotesque, but the authors went to nature for their hunting scenes and forms of animals. The bronze reliefs of the church of St. Michael, Hildesheim, Germany, are one of the legacies of the eleventh century; those of the Golden Gate, Freiburg, are considered the finest work of the late Romanesque period.
With the merging of the Romanesque into the Gothic, relief sculpture assumes a new character and a peculiar importance in its close association with architecture, and in the many uses it is put to in tympana, spandrels, etc. As a purely Christian and beautiful form of art it ranks high; numerous examples are extant, especially in the northern countries of Europe. In Italy it had small hold, for as early as 1300 Andrea Pisano, who is called a Gothic, was inaugurating a renaissance. Picturesque relief reached its fullest development in Florence, as in the baptistery doors of Ghiberti and the marble pulpit of Santa Croce by Benedetto da Majano. Donatello in his admirable high and low reliefs and the Della Robbias in their enamels return to a more plastic conception. During the entire baroque period (Michelangelo being the last Italian sculptor of the late Renaissance) works of a low order of inspiration prevailed. The Danish sculptor Thorwaldsen, influenced by the study of Attic models, produced reliefs of great beauty and plasticism. The works of Canova were likewise classics, though frequently cold and feeble. Rauch in Germany and Rude in France modeled spirited reliefs. In our day at the head of the admirable French school of sculpture stands Rodin, an impressionist and psychologist, producing unfinished reliefs which nevertheless are almost Greek in their imprint of life. In Germany, Austria, and England, fine reliefs, especially decorative works, are being modeled. In Spain and Italy the younger men are forming new schools of plastic work. In America, though good work in relief is done, sculpture in the round prevails. Everywhere the tendency is to neglect the distinction between the different kinds of relief, to be independent in method and treatment, and principles sway as of old between the pictorial and the plastic.
M. L. HANDLEY