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The History of Bas-Relief Sculpture
Bas-Relief is a form of sculpture in which raised and modeled parts project from a flat background. Specifically, bas-relief, also called low-relief, refers to relief sculpture in which the modeled surface is only slightly raised. In this sense it is distinguished from middle- and high-relief. But the term bas-relief is sometimes used in a general sense for all sculptured reliefs, as distinguished from free-standing sculpture in-the-round. Relief sculpture has proved to be especially adaptable for ornamental purposes in architecture, and for use as subordinate decoration in large sculptural works.
Bas-relief sculpture can be traced to the beginning of artistic representation. Even the prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira, Spain, were applied to raised areas on the cave walls, creating a form of low-relief. The walls of Egyptian tombs were often decorated with very low relief, or with a variant form called intaglio relief, in which the figures are cut into the stone, making the background a raised surface. Relief sculpture was also important in Mesopotamian cultures, which produced the splendid 9th-century B.C. Assyrian reliefs now in the British Museum, London. Excavations at the site of Persepolis indicate that the use of reliefs remained a strong tradition in ancient Persia.
Greece and Rome
The ancient Greeks were the first to realize the full potential of relief decoration in architecture. The reliefs from the metopes of the Greek temple at Selinunte in Sicily, from the temple of Zeus at Olympia, and above all, those from the Parthenon at Athens, are among the highest expressions of classical art. The Parthenon metopes are carved in relatively high relief, but the reliefs on the frieze below are bas-relief. Later Greek art produced the beautiful "Ludovisi throne" and the dynamic Hellenistic reliefs of the Pergamon altar.
In Roman art, reliefs were used to decorate triumphal arches and columns throughout the empire. Sarcophagi, too, were heavily decorated, usually in very high relief.
Early Christian and Medieval
Early Christian art continued many of the traditions and conventions of Roman art, including the use of relief decoration. Miniature ivory relief carvings are among the most exquisite works of Byzantine craftsmen. In medieval times, relief sculpture again became an important part of architectural decoration. This was particularly true in the Romanesque era of the 11th and 12th centuries, which evolved a regular plan for the decoration of great churches such as those at Moissac and at Vézelay, both in France. A low-relief representation of the Last Judgment on the tympanum of the central portal usually dominated the façade. Romanesque relief sculpture was often very flat, stylized and expressive, with the suggestion of strong movement. Later Gothic sculpture was more naturalistic and usually in higher relief.
Bronze church doors decorated in bas-relief were a medieval tradition that was continued in the early 15th century by Lorenzo Ghiberti in his two great sets of doors for the cathedral baptistery in Florence. At about the same time a monumental bas-relief figure style was originated by Jacopo della Quercia on the portal of San Petronio in Bologna. Among the other great Renaissance artists who worked in bas-relief were Donatello, the artists of the della Robbia family, and Desiderio da Settignano. Renaissance relief sculpture culminated in Michelangelo's early Madonna of the Steps and Battle with the Centaurs.
After the Renaissance, bas-relief ceased to be a major sculptural form, although it still was used for occasional masterpieces such as Alessandro Algardi's baroque relief of St. Leo and Attila in St. Peter's, Rome. Neoclassical artists of the 19th century, including the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen and his American follower Horatio Greenough, brought about a brief revival of the form. The 20th-century Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzù produced major works in bas-relief, notably his bronze doors for St. Peter's, Rome, and for Salzburg Cathedral, Austria.