Sculpture techniques: relief carving
Sculpture designed to convey a particular narrative is often carved in relief, which means that it is not fully detached from its background panel. While a free-standing piece of sculpture may be limited to one or two figures, relief carving allows many more figures and therefore larger scenes to be depicted. Narrative reliefs were particularly important at times when literacy was limited and were often incorporated into architectural schemes and altarpieces as a means of communicating with a generally illiterate public. A number of reliefs were made as a series, with each one representing a different scene within a story. The series could then be 'read' like a picture book. Religious or mythological subjects, or the deeds of the great and the good, are commonly depicted in narrative reliefs.
Detail from the plaster cast of Trajan’s Column, by Monsieur Oudry, France, about 1864
Trajan's Column was erected in Rome in AD 113 in commemoration of two victorious campaigns against the Dacians conducted by the emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117). Two sections, divided by the figure of Victory, tell a continuous narrative story, a characteristic of Roman sculpture.
There are no formal divisions between scenes, but each is marked by the appearance of Trajan himself. He is not always easy to spot, but his features are fairly consistent: clean-shaven, long nose, hair in a fringe, and heavy eyebrows. He is also often placed centrally and slightly taller than those around him.
The scenes in chronological order are:
1. Trajan giving parting instructions before leaving for Rome at the end of his first Dacian campaign.
2. The winged figure of Victory surrounded by the spoils of war, marking the division between the two campaigns.
3. The departure of Trajan and his troops by river.
4. The arrival of Trajan at a Roman colony on the Danube to collect troops for his campaign.
5. A triumphal procession through the town.
6. Trajan about to offer a sacrifice.
7. Trajan arriving at another colony on the Danube to collect more troops and make a sacrifice.
8. Trajan departing by boat with his new troops.
9. Trajan arriving at a third colony.
10. Trajan being welcomed by colonists.
11. Trajan offering a sacrifice.
Electrotype copy of the bronze doors of Hildesheim Cathedral, by Franchi and Son, about 1874
The original of this electrotype was commissioned by St Bernward, Bishop of Hildesheim, Germany, in about 1015. The scenes depicted are:
Left from top to bottom:
The Creation of Eve; the presentation of Eve to Adam; the Temptation of Adam and Eve; The Fall of Man; the Expulsion from Paradise; the Labours of Adam and Eve; the Sacrifice of Cain and Abel; the Murder of Abel
Right from bottom to top:
The Annunciation; the Nativity; the Adoration of the Magi; The Presentation in the Temple; Christ before Pontius Pilate; The Crucifixion; The three Marys at the Sepulchre; Christ's appearance to Mary Magdalene
Electrotype copy of the Porta di San Ranieri, by Franchi and Son, London, England, about 1865
The bronze originals of these doors, known as the ‘Porta di San Ranieri’, were designed about 1180 by Bonanus of Pisa (fl. 1179–86) and are in the south transept of Pisa cathedral, Italy.
Starting at the bottom the scenes read from left to right; a row of Prophets, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Journey of the Magi, the Presentation, the Flight into Egypt, the Massacre of the Innocents, the Baptism, the Temptation, the Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Washing of the Feet of the Disciples, the Last Supper, the Betrayal, the Crucifixion, the Descent into Hell, the Maries at the Sepulchre, the Ascension, the Death of the Virgin, Christ enthroned between Angels, and the Virgin enthroned between Angels.
On these doors, the Nativity is shown taking place in a cave. This was a convention of Byzantine art that clearly influenced the artist Bonanus when he made the doors. He also depicts two midwives at a basin, attending Mary and, on the hillside above the cave, the annunciation to the shepherds.
The depth of the relief modelling varies. Some elements are in very low relief, for example the small figures of Adam and Eve on the ‘Journey of the Magi’ panel, whereas architectural elements are often modelled three-dimensionally and project from the surface. The heads of the figures are depicted in the round.
Detail from the plaster cast of the tomb of St Peter Martyr, by Edoardo Pierotti, Milan, Italy, about 1869
The original of this cast is a tomb by Giovanni di Balduccio (about 1300–60) in Milan Cathedral. The series of relief panels on the tomb depicts scenes from the life and death of St Peter Martyr, a Dominican friar who is mainly remembered for his relentless pursuit of heretics. He was assassinated by two men hired by heretic noblemen whose property he had confiscated, and this scene is portrayed on one of the ends of the tomb. Other scenes include St Peter curing a mute and St Peter emerging from the clouds to save a ship in a storm.
Alabaster and Solnhofen stone are relatively soft materials, which can be easily carved with a knife. Marble, on the other hand, is a hard, fine-grained, crystalline stone, which has to be carved with chisels and a mallet. All can be polished with fine abrasive powders, with marble, in particular, taking a high polish.
Solnhofen stone is similar to marble in colour, but soft. It comes from quarries near Solnhofen in Franconia in southern Germany. Sculptors in Nuremberg, Augsburg and Eichstädt used it from the 1570s. The extensive trade in Italian marble to northern Europe began in the 1550s. Amsterdam soon became one of the largest importing markets for the fine Carrara marble.
The dense grain of a hardwood such as hornbeam and boxwood allows subtle carving and a high polish. In a relief the image stands out against a background that has been cut away. The depths and angles at which the wood is carved determine the play of light and shadow in the relief.
'The Coronation of the Virgin and Other Scenes', wood relief
'The Coronation of the Virgin and Other Scenes'
From a diptych
Museum no. 918-1869
The scene with the Coronation of the Virgin includes St John the Baptist. Above (left, then clockwise) are the Ascension, Pentecost and scenes of the Legends of St Benedict and St Maur. The form of the object is close to that of contemporary ivory carvings.
'The Virgin and Child', wood relief
'The Virgin and Child'
Southern Germany (possibly Augsburg)
Museum no. A.1059-1910
Purchased under the bequest of Captain H.B. Murray
The robe of the Virgin is enhanced with seed pearls and red glass.
'St Sebastian', relief
Museum no. A.10-1933
Given by Mr Louis Cutbill
In Italy St Sebastian was bound to a column, but in northern Europe he was shown with a tree symbolising the Tree of Life. In many depictions he was pierced with arrows to evoke his first, miraculous escape from execution, but here the arrows are not shown.
'Hercules and the Hydra', wood relief
'Hercules and the Hydra'
Museum no. A.25-1951
Given by Dr W.L. Hildburgh FSA
The subject formed part of the Twelve Labours that Hercules undertook as a penance for slaying his own children in a fit of madness. He killed the seven-headed monster by cutting off its heads, with the help of a companion who cauterised the wounds with a torch.