Relief sculpture has a notable history dating back over 20,000 years in both eastern and western cultures.The term relief is from the Latin verb “relevo”, to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane.
image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relief
where it originated?
Ancient cave art in the Franco-Cantabrian area of the Upper Paleolithic period included not only cave paintings and engravings but a few bas-reliefs.
The Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites practiced both bas-relief and sculpture in the round. The Greeks conceived relief sculptures in a plastic sense—embodying high and low together. They used relief both as an ornament and as an integral part of a plan in conjunction with architecture.
In the second and first centuries B.C.E. bas-relief sculpture was present in western India. The earliest find is on the porch of a small monastery at Bhājā, thought of as being the god Indra, seated on his elephant, and Sūrya, the sun god, in his chariot.
image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indra
Later in the first through fourth century India C.E., individually carved figures-either in high relief or in the round-replaced the earlier narrative tradition edifying rulers and gods. They used the high-relief between the triglyphs and the tympana of the temples, and low-relief in friezes, tombstones, etc.
In Europe, the Hellenistic period saw a more picturesque carving style. Etruscan relief was mainly in artistic handicrafts. In Rome, the Arch of Titus, the continuously winding reliefs of the Column of Trajan, imperial sarcophagi in the Vatican, and reliefs of the Capitol Museum all reflect a pictorial style, revealing the influence of the Greeks.
image source: http://penguintown.net/Roman/Titus.html
which was the technique for raised relief?
Relief was usually carved before being painted. The two primary classes of relief are raised relief (where the figures stand up out from the surface) and sunk relief (where the figures are cut into and below the surface). The surface would be smoothed with a layer of plaster and then painted. If the surface was not carved before painting, several layers of mud plaster would be applied to create a flat plane.
The drawing surface would be delineated using gridded guidelines, snapped onto the wall using string coated in red pigment dust (very much like chalk lines used by modern carpenters). This grid helped the artists properly proportion the figures and lay out the scenes. Scene elements were drafted out using red paint, corrections noted in black paint, and then the painting was executed one color at a time. Even on carved relief, many elements in a scene would be executed only in paint and not cut into the surface.
Which technique was used for Sunk relief ?
Sunk or sunken relief is largely restricted to the art of Ancient Egypt where it is very common, becoming after the Amarna period of Ahkenaten the dominant type used, as opposed to low relief. It had been used earlier, but mainly for large reliefs on external walls, and for hieroglyphs and cartouches. The image is made by cutting the relief sculpture itself into a flat surface. In a simpler form the images are usually mostly linear in nature, like hieroglyphs, but in most cases the figure itself is in low relief, but set within a sunken area shaped round the image, so that the relief never rises beyond the original flat surface. In some cases the figures and other elements are in a very low relief that does not rise to the original surface, but others are modeled more fully, with some areas rising to the original surface. This method minimizes the work removing the background, while allowing normal relief modelling.
The technique is most successful with strong sunlight to emphasise the outlines and forms by shadow, as no attempt was made to soften the edge of the sunk area, leaving a face at a right-angle to the surface all around it. Some reliefs, especially funerary monuments with heads or busts from ancient Rome and later Western art, leave a “frame” at the original level around the edge of the relief, or place a head in a hemispherical recess in the block . Though essentially very similar to Egyptian sunk relief, but with a background space at the lower level around the figure, the term would not normally be used of such works.
what was the evolution of relief in later centuries?
During the European Middle Ages the emphasis in sculpture was definitely on relief work. Some of the most outstanding examples decorate the Romanesque portals (tympana) of churches in France, England, and other countries. The Gothic period continued this tradition but often preferred a higher relief, in accordance with the renewed interest in statuary that characterized the late Middle Ages.
During the Italian Renaissance the qualities of relief work began to change, as is evident in the famous bronze doors that Lorenzo Ghiberti created for the baptistry of the Cathedral of Florence. The free play between high and low relief and the strikingly illusionistic style of composition in these reliefs show Renaissance artists’ new interest in and understanding of space as a subjective visual experience that could be faithfully reproduced. Figures in the foreground of the composition were done in high relief, thus appearing close at hand, while background features were done in low relief, thus approximating distance. Donatello further exploited these experiments, adding textural contrasts between rough and smooth surfaces to the interplay between high and low relief and completely modeling some forms while leaving others in an almost painterly state of incompleteness.
Two different trends subsequently became apparent in Italian relief sculpture: delicate and low reliefs in marble and terra-cotta by Desiderio da Settignano and Mino da Fiesole, for example, and the more robust and sculptural relief style used by Bertoldo di Giovanni and later by Michelangelo.
Baroque sculptors continued these illusionistic experiments, often on a very large scale. Their large relief compositions became a kind of painting in marble, being set off by deep boxlike frames and special stagelike conditions of lighting. Lorenzo Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Santa Theresa,” with figures carved almost fully in the round but encased in a marble altar, offers a most impressive example.
Neoclassical artists of the early 19th century temporarily revived experimentation with low reliefs in pursuit of what they saw as classical rigour and purity; such works relied on fine surface modeling and clarity of design for their effect. The works of Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorwaldsen are typical in this regard. But on the whole the Renaissance concept of relief prevailed, and its dramatic and emotive possibilities were keenly and vigorously employed by such subsequent 19th-century sculptors as François Rude in “The Marseillaise” (decorating the Arc de Triomphe in Paris) and by Auguste Rodin in his famous “Gates of Hell” and other reliefs. Relief techniques came to be used in 20th-century modern art for abstract compositions that emphasized spatial recession and contrasts of light and shade. Reliefs were also a feature in pre-Columbian and Asian Indian sculpture.