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Bas-relief.  Sculptural modeling in low relief with design elements projecting only slightly from the background, or matrix. It is this type of relief that is necessary for coins and medals. Coin or medal dies that are not hand engraved are modeled in bas-relief by a sculptor and this used as a pattern to reduce and cut dies on a die-engraving pantograph. Two bas-relief models are required for each coin or medal (one for obverse, one for reverse). The relief must be suitable for die striking – for the die to impress the blank and then retract – therefore no undercuts are permitted in the model and the sides of all relief should have a slight draft or bevel

Bas-relief for coins and medals is of two kinds; the word itself is French, but the two kinds have Italian names: basso-rilievo or low relief is typical of medallic relief, especially for items that are multiple struck; and stiacciato or very low relief, suitable for striking a relief design in one blow, as on a high-speed coining press. These, and other forms of relief are described in the entry under relief.

Bas-relief is always attached to its background, in contrast to sculpture in-the-

round. For numismatic and medallic use this includes the models for coins, medals, medallions, plaquettes and plaques. In sculpture bas-relief also forms panels (to be attached to some larger work). The use of relief sculpture is widespread and the detail is so compelling that often the fact it is attached to a flat surface is unnoticed. Thus bas-relief adorns monuments and buildings, towers and tombstones – in addition to providing the models for coins and medals.

Portraits are particularly suitable to bas-relief. Even though the full face can be rendered into a highly realistic and recognizable form, it is the side view that is ideal for this form of art. Profiles dominate the designs of coins and medals. Relief techniques compliment the human form which can be created in subtle low relief to relief of any height.  See portraits and portraiture.

Bas-relief as subject for numismatic study.  Not all bas-reliefs are numismatic. But surprisingly a large portion of this class of art is, particularly those works that include the typical numismatic parameters of subject, symbol and inscription and are smaller than, say 18 inches (longest dimension). The concept of portrait and lettering was so compelling to numismatist Malcom Storer that he included fifteen basketball-size bas-relief portraits of Boston mayors in his book, Numismatics of Massachusetts.

The Boston reliefs, by sculptor Richard Edwin Brooks (1865-1919), were created from 1883 to 1909, included the city's first mayor, John Phillips, and were mounted in the city's municipal offices. Similarly, those athletes named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, are preserved with an obvious basketball-size portrait made as a bas-relief galvano

It is the small size bas-reliefs that attract collectors and connoisseurs. It can be said a bas-relief is numismatic if it can be viewed intimately (within arm's reach), have modulated relief, and bear symbols or inscription. A large scene can be represented in a small space, or a large theme can be expressed in symbols and symbolism appropriate for the bas-relief medium. While Mount Rushmore is certainly bas-relief because it is attached to its background (the author will refrain from the pun of calling this "high relief"), it lacks the obvious intimate appeal necessary for a numismatic item.

Coins and medals put such intimate bas-relief sculpture in the hands of an admiring public in the most desirable permanent miniature form.


A31 {1974} Rogers.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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