Relief Carving: Low, Bas & Linenfold

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Reliefs are very important parts of art history in many cultures. In this lesson, we'll check out various forms and styles of relief carvings and see how each has been used across history.

What a Relief

Imagine being a sculptor. You want to create a scene from a famous battle, but you don't have the time or material to carve a dozen independent freestanding statues. Luckily, there is another alternative. It's a relief. Literally, the solution is an artistic technique known as a relief.

In sculpture, a relief is a carving which projects from a flat surface, but is still attached to that surface. In essence, the artist outlines their scene and then carves away the background, leaving the main figures higher than the surface. You can remember this because ''relief'' actually derives from the Italian word relievare, which means ''to raise.'' So figures carved in relief (or in relievo) are raised above the surface. It's a great trick that gives a 3-dimensional quality to sculpture, but is less timely or costly than carving independent and freestanding sculptures. That's a relief.


As with any artistic technique, there are a few ways to carve reliefs. Let's start with the most basic: bas-relief. Bas-relief is also called low relief because the images do not substantially project from the background. They are low to the surface. They are near the base plane of the sculpture. Technically, a carving is in bas-relief if less than half of its circumference projects from the background (if it's more than that, then it's high relief). In practical terms, we can think of it this way: if you only have to carve the front of an object, and it doesn't project enough for you to carve the sides, it's probably bas-relief. If you need an example, pull out the coins in your piggy bank. The presidents, projecting slightly from the background, are all shown in bas-relief.

Ancient Hittite bas-relief carving

Bas-relief sculptures have been around for a long, long time. In fact, there are Paleolithic caves in France and Spain, dating over 20,000 years old, which show a very early form of bas-relief. In essence, ancient artists painted images in caves, and then used rocks to etch the outlines, creating physical depth. It's a simple form of low relief, but shows that the idea has been around for quite some time. In fact, artists of the Renaissance would essentially use this same technique with reliefs which barely projected from the surface at all. They called this extremely low form of relief statiacciato. It was especially associated with the master Donatello.

By playing with various degrees of low relief, Renaissance masters realized that they could create the illusion of a greater 3-dimensional space than actually existed. Basically, they could create the illusion of perspective, something previously associated mainly with painting. This was such a big deal in the history of art that some scholars claim the exact moment the Italian Renaissance began was when Lorenzo Ghiberti used this technique in 1422 in the reliefs for the doors of the Florence baptistery.

Ghiberti used varying degrees of both high and low relief to create a greater sense of depth

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