Sculpting Glossary

What is a Relief Sculpture?

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Written By Harriet Maher

Imagine walking into a museum and being greeted by a wall adorned with intricate sculptures, each one uniquely carved and masterfully designed.

As you take a closer look, you notice that some of the sculptures seem to be coming off the wall, their details standing out in high relief.

These are known as relief sculptures, and they’ve been a popular form of art for thousands of years.

In this article, we’ll explore what relief sculptures are, their history, and the four types of relief sculptures you should know. Whether you’re an art enthusiast or simply curious about this art form, prepare to be fascinated by the beauty and depth of relief sculptures.

We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):

What is a Relief Sculpture

Relief is a method of sculpting in which the carved elements remain attached to a solid base of the same material. It is an art form that combines many aspects of two-dimensional graphic art and three-dimensional sculpture and are often used on wall, or some other type of background, on which it is engraved.

The word ‘relief’ comes from the Latin verb relevo, to raise.

What is actually done when the release is cut on a flat surface of a carved image of stone or wood (wood carving) is a reduction of the field, leaving the uncovered parts to appear to be elevated.

Relief Sculpture example

Relief Sculpture Examples

There are various styles and examples of relief sculptures throughout history. Here are a few notable examples:

1. Trajan’s Column (Rome, Italy)

Trajan’s Column is an ancient Roman monument features a continuous frieze carved in low relief that spirals around the column.

It depicts Emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars and is a remarkable example of Roman art and engineering.

2. Gates of Paradise (Florence, Italy)

Created by Renaissance sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, the Gates of Paradise, gilded bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery are adorned with intricate biblical scenes in high relief.

They are considered a masterpiece of early Renaissance art.

3. The Parthenon Frieze (Athens, Greece)

The Parthenon Frieze, part of the Parthenon temple in Athens, this classical Greek frieze features a continuous band of sculpted figures in low relief. It depicts a procession of gods, humans, and animals, and is a prime example of ancient Greek art.

4. Mount Rushmore National Memorial (South Dakota, USA)

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, carved into the side of a mountain, this monumental relief sculpture features the faces of four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. It was created by Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln Borglum.

5. Ain Ghazal Statues (Jordan)

The Ain Ghazal statues, dating back to around 7200–6500 BCE, are some of the oldest known examples of three-dimensional sculpture. These Neolithic statues are made of plaster and depict human figures.

6. The Great Altar of Pergamon (Pergamon, Turkey)

The Great Altar of Pergamon, the Hellenistic-era monument features a dramatic frieze in high relief depicting a battle between the gods and giants. The altar is known for its dynamic and intricate sculptural details.

7. Borobudur Temple Relief Panels (Central Java, Indonesia)

The Borobudur Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has numerous relief panels on its walls. These panels depict scenes from the life of Buddha, Jataka tales, and various Buddhist teachings.

8. The Last Supper (Leonardo da Vinci)

Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting, “The Last Supper,” can be considered a type of mural relief. It depicts the moment Jesus reveals that one of his disciples will betray him and is known for its intricate details and composition.

Types of Relief Sculptures

Relief sculptures have the following types:

1. Low Relief

Low relief is an expressive image with a shallow depth. Examples can be seen with coins. Some versions distort the depth very little. The word comes from the Italian basso relevo in French bas-relief.

To further explore low relief, we also recommend this video by Fakeero:

2. Mid Relief

Mid-relief, half-relief, or mezzo-relief is defined indirectly, and the word is rarely used in English. Works are often described as low relief instead.

Middle relief falls between high and low forms.

3. High Relief

This is usually more than half the weight of sculptural projects from the background.

Indeed, the most prominent elements of formation, especially the heads, and limbs, are often completely reduced, removing them from the field.

Visual title elements are often expressed in their full depth, in contrast to the low liberalization where the visual elements are stripped flat.

Most large sculptures were built using this process in monuments and architecture.

Check out this example of a high-relief sculpture by Kyle Vannoy:

4. Sunken Relief

The sunken relief is very limited in ancient Egyptian art where it is most common.

It has been used for large paintings on exterior walls, as well as hieroglyphs and cartouches.

To see sunken relief in action, we recommend this video by Miss Williams:

History of Relief Sculpture

In simple terms, the development of sculpture (relief) was noted for the fluctuations between figurative and engraved dominance.

Prehistoric Relief Sculpture

The first sculpture goes back to the art of the Upper Paleolithic cave, about 25,000 BCE

The oldest statues in France are Venus of Laussel (23,000 BCE), a limestone bas-relief of the woman, found in Dordogne. Also, the unusual Abril du Poisson Cave Salmon Carving.

Ancient Relief Sculpture

During the civilization of the Ancient World (c.3,500-600 BCE), paintings were common in the stone architecture of ancient Egypt, Assyria, and other Middle Eastern cultures.

An example of a Mesopotamian sculpture is a group of lions and dragons from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, slaughtered with relative ease.

See also alabaster lion sculptures depicting Ashurnasirpal II and Ashurbanipal, a typical example of Assyrian art c.1500-612 BCE.

To see the relief sculptures of ancient Egypt, we also recommend this video by Ashraf Ezzat:

Famous Relief Sculptures

It includes the following:

  • The Great Pergamum Altar, now housed in the Pergamum Museum, Berlin, especially the upper respite
  • Lions and dragons from the Ishtar Gate, Babylon, a lowly relief
  • Karnak Temple in Egypt, dead rest
  • Bayon, Angkor show Cham soldiers on board and Khmer fighters dead in water
  • Angkor Watt in Cambodia, especially for low relaxation
  • Images of elephant, horse, bull and lion below the Asoka Lion of the Capital of India, the national emblem of India (the capital itself is a complete portrait)
  • Glyphs and the artwork of the Maya civilization, low liberty
  • Confederacy Monument in Stone Mountain, Georgia
  • Borobudur Temple, Java Island Java, Indonesia
  • Elgin Marbles from Parthenon, now living in the British Museum, is comfortable and downstairs
  • Frieze of Parnassus, high relief
  • Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, Boston, especially high school help

This sculpture has been in use many times now and is providing valuable new things to the already developed art of sculpting.

What is a characteristic of relief sculpture?

A characteristic of relief sculpture is that it is a type of sculpture where figures or designs are carved or molded onto a flat surface, creating a sense of depth and dimensionality. This style allows the viewer to experience the artwork from multiple angles, and can range from low relief where the figures barely protrude from the surface, to high relief where the figures are deeply carved and stand out prominently.

What does relief sculpture always involve?

Relief sculpture always involves a flat surface, whether it be a wall, panel, or slab, onto which figures or designs are carved or molded to create a sense of depth. This technique allows the artist to create a three-dimensional effect while still maintaining the work’s connection to the surface it is attached to.

What tools are used in relief sculpture?

Tools used in relief sculpture can vary depending on the material being used, but typically include chisels, knives, and other carving tools. These tools are used to create the intricate designs and details that bring the sculpture to life in relief.