What Is A Relief Sculpture? – Definition, Types, History

What Is A Relief Sculpture? View samples of relief sculpture, understand the various relief sculpture types and their use throughout history.

What Is A Relief Sculpture?

A flat surface is used as the background for drawings or sculptures in relief art, which are carved directly into the background. For centuries, it has existed.

Relief style art has been utilized by early Egyptians, the Ancient Romans and Greeks and even modern artists to decorate structures, identify significant objects or locations, serve as signage, and create purely aesthetic works of art.

The most well-known example of relief art is probably seen on coins.

Reliefs tend to be more common than freestanding sculptures because they are three-dimensional pieces on a two-dimensional background.


Tools for Relief Sculpture

The material is usually stone or wood, to create the artwork require sharp tools such as:

  • Chisels
  • Corner Chisels
  • Wooden mallets
  • Gouges
  • Rasps

Types of Relief

There are three types of relief sculpture. It is based on how many carved figures protrude from the background

  • Low relief (basso-relievo, or bas-relief), the sculpture projects only marginally from the background surface
  • High relief (alto-relievo, or alto-relief), the sculpture projects at least half or more of its natural circumference from the background and may, in some places, be completely disengaged from the ground, roughly resembling sculpture in the ground.
  • Sunken relief (incised, coelanaglyphic or intaglio relief), the sculpture is actually below the surrounding surface

In addition to the types listed above, there are some forms of relief art, such as:

  • Stiacciato relief
  • Mid relief
  • Counter-relief

History of A Relief Sculpture.

Simple words, the evolution of relief sculpture was distinguished by swings between pictorial and sculptural dominance.

Prehistoric Relief Sculpture

The earliest reliefs are from the Upper Paleolithic cave art, which dates to about 25,000 BCE.

The Venus of Laussel (23,000 BCE), a limestone bas-relief of a female figure, is the oldest relief sculpture in France. 

Other notable examples include the rare Abri du Poisson Cave Salmon Carving (23,000 BE), located in Les Eyzies de Tayac, Perigord; the Solutrean Roc-de-Sers Cave Frieze (17,200 BCE), located in the Charente; the Magdalenian era Cap Blanc Frieze (15,000 BCE).

Outside of France, there are the poorly preserved clay reliefs found in Russia’s Kapova Cave. Numerous Neolithic megaliths have been discovered with additional reliefs engraved on them.

Ancient Relief Sculpture

In ancient Egypt, Assyria, and other Middle Eastern civilizations, reliefs were frequently seen on the exteriors of stone structures during the civilizations of the Ancient World (c. 3,500–600 BCE).

A set of lions and dragons from Babylon’s Ishtar Gate that has been rather easily dispatched is an illustration of a Mesopotamian sculpture.

Typical Assyrian artwork includes the alabaster carvings of lion hunts with Ashurnasirpal II and Ashurbanipal (c.1500-612 BCE). 

Sunken relief was frequently used by Egyptian sculptors. A good example of this is the numerous submerged reliefs at the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, which have figures that are shown standing sideways and enclosed inside a strongly incised shape.

Particularly prevalent in Chinese sculpture were low reliefs. See Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics for a description of the guiding concepts in Oriental arts.

Before Classical Antiquity (about 500 BCE), when Ancient Greek sculptors started to investigate the genre more completely, high reliefs were uncommon.

A famous example is the 4th century BCE attic tomb relief sculpture, as well as the sculptural friezes used to decorate the Parthenon and other classical temples. For information on Hellenistic reliefs, like the Altar of Zeus, see Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture (241-133 BCE).

Early Christian sculpture featured a lot of relief sculptures, especially in the affluent Christians’ sarcophagi of the second and third century CE (see also Relief Sculpture of Ancient Rome). The other early Christian art (150 onwards).

During the period 600-1100, abstract reliefs appeared in a variety of cultures, including the Mixtec culture in Mexico, the Norse/Viking culture, and Islamic surroundings throughout the Middle East.

Medieval Relief Sculpture

Christian art mostly took the shape of architecture in Europe during the period 1000-1200, especially because of the Roman Catholic Church’s financing of a building program that included cathedrals, abbeys, and churches. 

The beautiful reliefs that adorn the portals (tympana) of Romanesque cathedrals in France, Germany, England, and other nations are examples of this religious art’s concentration on relief sculpture, despite the fact that statuary was a presence as well. (Related to Romanesque sculpture.) 

This trend continued into the Gothic period, albeit Gothic artists typically favored a higher relief in keeping with the resurgence of sculpture that was evident in the fourteenth century. Gothic sculpture is another example.

The Renaissance Onwards

The magnificent bronze doors that Lorenzo Ghiberti created for the Baptistry of Florence Cathedral serve as an example of how the Italian Renaissance (c. 1400–1600) brought about a dramatic transformation. Figures in the foreground of the composition were rendered in high relief to make them appear close at hand, while background components were rendered in low relief to represent the distance to fully utilize the possibilities for perspective. Donatello expanded on this strategy in his sculpture by incorporating textural contrasts between rough and smooth surfaces.

Renaissance relief sculpture generally tried to make the most of the visual possibilities of the 2-D background. These two movements were Michelangelo’s more powerful and sculptural relief style and Desiderio da Settignano’s delicate and low reliefs in marble and terracotta. (More details can be found at Renaissance sculptors.)

The first Fontainebleau School (c.1530-70), a branch of French Mannerist art named for the royal residence of French King Francis I (1494-1547), is renowned for its intricate relief sculptures made of stucco, which were created by cutting strips of the material into strips, rolling them at the ends, and then weaving them together to create fantastic shapes. Francesco Primaticcio (1504–70), one of the most important artists at Fontainebleau, and Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540).

The Renaissance’s graphic style was further developed by baroque relief sculptors, frequently on a very great scale. 

The Bernini work Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which features figures almost entirely carved in the round but enclosed in a marble altar, is an example of how occasionally their enormous relief compositions actually evolved into a form of marble painting. (Additional sculptors can be found in Baroque and Neoclassical.) 

While a few Neoclassical sculpture proponents, such as Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen, briefly resumed the use of low reliefs to achieve what they perceived as classical rigor and purity, for the most part, the Renaissance concept of “pictorial-style” relief prevailed, reaching a high point in the work of nineteenth-century sculptors like Francois Rude (Arc de Triomphe) and Auguste Rodin (Gates of Hell).

Famous Reliefs

These consist of:

  • The Parthenon frieze for the Athenian Akropolis (449–432 B.C.) 
  • Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise (1426–52) for the Baptistery of Florence
  • Doors of Paradise, Baptistery, Florence (1452) Ghiberti 
  • Tuc d’Audoubert Bison (c.13,500 BCE) Ariege, France 
  • Arch of Constantine, Rome (315 CE)

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of a relief sculpture?

A coin is a good illustration of a relief sculpture because it has an elevated inscription, date, and figure, sometimes a portrait. The sculpture is referred to as low relief or bas-relief when the image is only marginally raised, such as with a coin.

What are the three types of relief sculpture?

The three primary categories of relief sculpture are sunken, high, and low. The less popular types of relief sculpture are counter-relief, mid-relief, and stiacciato relief.


So, what is a relief sculpture? After reading this post, I bet you know in detail about this wonderful art.

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