Bas relief  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Bas-relief, French for "low relief") is a method of sculpting which entails carving or etching away the surface of a flat piece of stone or metal creating a sculpture portrayed as a picture. This expression is probably derived from the Italian basso rilievo, the literal translation meaning "low contrast" as opposed to "alto rilievo" ("high contrast") and "haut-relief" ("high relief") in French.

The portrayed image is raised above the background flat surface so that for a stone slab two inches thick the non-image (background) area may be one inch thick when the art work has been completed, and the image area will vary from one inch to two inches. That would be considered to be "low relief" within the context of bas-relief. In a few major works of art, the actual human figure may have "near natural" depth, but still, the background is greatly flattened and is only a few inches behind the rounded figures. This might be characterized as "high bas-relief".

The advantage of the natural contour of the figures allows the work to be viewed from many angles without distortion of the figures themselves, but the background depth is only suggested. There is a continuum of the bas relief technique into the next category, alto-relievo, or high relief. This technique combines the rounded figures with significantly deeper backgrounds. Instead of the backgrounds being a few inches deep, they may be a foot to several feet deep. To qualify as relief of either kind, the sculpture figures must float out from the background. A good rule of thumb to classify a work might be that the "bas" technique always has less depth behind the faces or figures than the actual faces or figures would have, when measured. In "alto" technique, the depth behind the figures may equal or exceed the depth of the faces or figures, which are usually natural in depth.


Composite works

Occasionally, free standing sculptures are set in front of a relief sculpture to deepen the scene. Only those figures that are supported by attachment to the vertical stone background are considered to be part of the "relief". Foreground sculptures may be part of the final "grouping", but not of the "relief".

Historical context

Bas relief has existed in all civilizations creating stone sculpture from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, to classical, Middle Ages, and renaissance periods in European arts. A world wide use of this and the "alto" technique in public or political sculpture exists throughout the modern world. Bas-relief is an art technique that has been used since ancient times; the Elgin marbles are a prime example of this form of art. Stone Mountain is the world's largest bas-relief. The process is still in use today. There are countless examples both on display in museums and in the regular world. Most cultures of the world have utilized the technique. Erik Burger is one of the most famous bas-relief artists of our time. Examples of his work are on display in the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.

  • Europe
Prehistoric examples of bas-reliefs can be found with other kinds of art in the caves of Europe. The method used here was to etch the shape of an animal or other form around the natural features of the rock surface creating three-dimensional sculptures that stand out in natural light. The world's most extensive collection of paleolithic bas-reliefs was found in Creswell Crags, UK in 2003; this cave art has been dated at almost 13,000 years old.
  • Egypt
Bas Sculpture is a form of art developed at least 20,000 years ago. It is thought to have existed before sculptures that are in the round. This form of art has coexisted with full round sculpture since ancient Egypt. The Egyptians used relief sculptures to decorate the interiors of their buildings.
The Greeks achieved the greatest mastery of this form of art. They used the bas and relief sculptures as an ornamental and integral way to decorate buildings. They used beautiful friezes and sculptures as backgrounds for the interior and exterior walls. Many of their sculptures were models of the Greek gods.
  • Persia
Bas-relief stone carvings of Persepolis, built during the Achaemenid Empire, are among the works of this art.
  • Rome
The Romans owe some of their relief sculptures to the Greek artists they employed
  • Christian
The Christian relief were mainly used on sarcophagi to depict religious and symbolic subjects. Relief was also used in Christian art to recreate scenes from the Old and the New Testament; some of the scenes include Daniel in the lions' den and Moses striking water from the rock.

In architecture

It is most commonly used for the architectural adornment of building surfaces, both inside and outside, where the stone is part of the building, rather than as a free-standing piece of art to be hung on a wall. Sometimes the resulting image has been painted, and other times it has been left in the natural state of the material used. Bas-relief should not be confused with an etching, as the latter requires cutting into a flat surface, leaving indentations within the flat surface, which becomes suitable for printing by applying ink and pressing paper to the surface.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Bas relief" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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