All About Bas: 10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Bas Relief

Rookery rooks

Rookery rooks

Walk around Chicago—especially in The Loop where you find a fair number of buildings of a certain age (generally about 100 years old) and you begin to notice some common design attributes. They’re far more ornate than the Miesian steel frame-and-glass structures. Stone was definitely in vogue at the turn of the century. And one more thing—embedded in that stonework the intricate and sometimes even whimsical sculptures of master craftsmen are on permanent display in the form of bas relief.

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1. Bas relief (pronounced bah ree·leef) is a French term which comes from the Italian basso-relievo, or low relief, has been around a long, long time. It actually dates back 20,000 years.

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2. It is essentially a two-dimensional drawing. Bas relief is developed by carving away stone or adding clay to the top of a smooth surface.
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3. Bas relief does double-duty on the façade of a building, where it can offer both a decorative and often a narrative device or pictorial style.
Bas 4_DxO4. One of the best examples of a historical bas sculpture in architecture is on display in Greece, at the Athenian Akropolis (449 b.c.) and the Parthenon frieze. Arguably the most famous American bas sculpture is Mount Rushmore Memorial (1927-1941), carved in granite.
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5. Italian sculptors brought bas relief as a design concept to the U.S., where they worked on government buildings constructed in the early 1800s.
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6. A cameo is essentially a small facial bas relief sculpture. It’s also very difficult to master. One of the best U.S. cameo artists was New York-born American Neoclassical sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer who helped popularize relief sculpture in marble.
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7.  a bas relief sculpture demands an artist’s eye, a steady hand and a craftsman’s touch. Not just any jamoke can pull it off, but bas is far easier—and more common—than freestanding sculpture.
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8. The Italian artist Lorenzo Ghiberti came up with a nifty method to create his 1435 bas sculpture Creation of Adam and Eve. He carved his design on a sheet of wax, then covered it with wet plaster. After it dried, Ghiberti made a mold out of the plaster and poured a metal alloy into the mold.
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9. Relief comes in three varieties: low relief, where the sculpture is raised only slightly from the surface; high relief, where the sculpture projects at least half of its image above the surface and middle relief, which falls somewhere between the two.
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10. There’s actually a 3D printed book—in bas relief—at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s called “Folium” by Tom Burtonwood and you can even download it here.

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at

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