Bas-relief is a form of sculpture in which a solid piece of material is carved so that objects project from a background, almost as though they are trapped in the stone, metal, wood, or other materials used. This carving technique is quite ancient, and it has been used independently in many cultures from Mesoamerica to India. Numerous very beautiful examples of bas-relief can be seen in museums, and also in-situ at a variety of archaeological sites.
The defining characteristic of a bas-relief is that it is not free standing. You may also hear this art form referred to as “low relief,” referencing that the objects do not project very far from the background. In cases where objects protrude more prominently, bas-relief is known as “high relief.” The sculpture can be made by carving wood, hammering or casting metal, and casting materials like ceramics. It can also be executed in stone, including precious and semiprecious gemstones.
In a typical bas-relief, the objects stand out from the background. When this norm is reversed, it is known as sunk relief, a type of relief where the figures are created by shadows carved into the background, with the background appearing raised or projected. Sunk relief can be quite beautiful and also quite durable, as the fine details are preserved in the sunken stone, rather than being projected out into space.
This form of sculpture has often been used as an architectural accent. Bas-relief panels could be attached to a structure, or integrated into its structural supports, depending on desires and architectural trends. Many temples around the world feature bas-relief scenes of religious importance, depicting various figures and events in religious history, and stunning geometric and floral designs can be seen in Muslim architecture as well.
It is also possible to find bas-relief on smaller objects, like boxes and furnishings, and much of the art exhibited in museums is of this type. In other cases, sections of architectural bas-relief have been removed and restored for display in museums. This practice is controversial, as some people feel that architecture and sculpture should remain in its nation of origin, and many artifacts of historical, religious, and cultural importance find their way into American and European museums, regardless as to their country of origin.