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Relief.  The three-dimensional surface that is the design on a plane other than that of a base, background or field. Relief sculpture has three dimensions, height and width are normal, but the third dimension – depth – is highly compressed. The viewer is not generally aware of the background, which is well behind, near the same, or in front of, the relief design. But what the viewer sees is the modulated relief that forms the design.

The background – called matrix by sculptors, the table by manufacturers, and the field by numismatists – is always attached to the relief. If the three-dimensional design is not attached to such a background then it is free standing or sculpture-in-the round. (Because of this attachment to the background and its depth compression, relief is whimsically called "two-and-a-half dimensions.")

For numismatic items relief is the design surface that rises above (infrequently below) the table or field of the model, coin or medal. The sculptural modeling of bas-relieflow relief or very low relief – that is capable of making such models required for coin and medal dies is employed extensively.

Types of relief.  Relief is distinguished by the degree it extends above the background; also there are two categories where the relief is below the background, all explained below. But there is one concept that is very important among these categories – undercut, undercutting – the carving of overhang between the relief and its matrix.

-       High Relief  (Italian alto-rilievo) extends the greatest amount above the background – more than half – and contains a great deal of undercutting to make the relief stand out extensively from the background. It has no application to medallic or numismatic art. [Caution: some medals are claimed to have “high relief” this is not this sculptural definition of high relief; see below.]

-       Medium Relief or half relief  (Italian mezzo-rilievo) is similar to high relief, but does not extend as much away from the background. Again undercutting is present, from moderate to extensive amount. Impossible for diestruck pieces, it can be molded or cast. A few cast plaques with this relief are found in medallic art.

-       Low Relief or bas-relief  (Italian basso-rilievo). No part detached from the background and no undercutting. Bas-relief, the French word for this relief, is used extensively for medallic work, particularly for multiple-struck medals; there are no undercuts which allows for a piece to be cast or diestruck and easily removed from the mold or die. There are sides to the relief where the designs meet the background, the more perpendicular the sides the greater the emphasis of the height of the relief. But all sides must slant with a slight draft or bevel for the piece to be released from its die or mold). Thus for medallic work this relief must meet some severe technical restrictions.

-       Very Low Relief or coin relief  (Italian stiacciato). Absolutely no undercutting, height of relief the very least. Most suitable for coin modeling, and ideal for diestruck high speed coining. However the technical restrictions are even more severe:  no sides to the relief (it must end right at the truncation with the background), the total rise of modulated relief to the high point is critical (it must not rise above a certain height), there should be no sharp increase of relief, and no deep protrusions of small areas (like the center of letters, A and O for example). This type of relief is so important to the numismatic field, it has a separate entry in this encyclopedia. See stiacciato.

-       Hollow Relief or coelanaglyptic relief  (Italian cavo-rilievo). This is raised relief in a sunken panel, the height of the relief does not exceed that of the background or table; also called sunken relief.

-       Intaglio or incuse relief (Italian intaglio rilievo). Negative relief, completely sunken below the background or table; also called sunken relief, it is the opposite of cameo or raised relief.

Relief in medallic art.  In his book on the medals of the Pinches firm, John Harvey Pinches grouped all the firm's medallic work into five classes of relief:  coin, shallow, bold, high and very high; with high relief being most prevalent. Obviously medallic high relief is not the same as sculptural high relief (with extensive undercutting and more than half the form extending from the matrix or background).

Thus medallic relief is measured with a different yardstick while using the same terms. All medallic relief falls within sculptural low relief (bas-relief) or lower–coin relief  (stiacciato) or incuse or hollow relief. Encountering sales literature extolling the delight of a medal's “high relief” (often written by someone with little experience in either sculpture or numismatics) may confuse the reader. It may talk about one but explain the other.

Medallic high relief should be considered as high low relief – the highest relief found in low relief class – a sort of sub-category. Likewise bold medallic relief is a further grade down within the low relief class; shallow is a grade down more so. Coin relief is coin relief in both scales – it can only mean the relief to produce coin models with extensive restrictions.

How relief is formed and shaped.  Relief can be modelled in soft material, as clay, wax or plasteline; or it can be carved – in plaster, wood, stone or such – or infrequently relief can be formed by hammering thin sheets of metal from the back (repoussé). Further, by plaster casting, relief can be transferred from positive to negative, or negative to positive.

Thus to form raised relief the artist may carve in the negative or add material (clay, plasteline) to the positive. Conversely to form incuse relief the artist may carve in the positive or add material to the negative. He can work whichever way he is most comfortable.  See modeling.

Much of what the sculptor does is creating undulating or modulated relief – the rise and fall of design. If all relief was of one plane raised from the background (silhouette relief), it would look too mechanical and not at all be realistic. Machines can, indeed, cut relief in this style, but it is for an artist to prepare a design in modulated, soft flowing relief that is most attractive to the human eye.

Effect of light and shadows.  The purpose of all relief is to create an interplay of light and shadows in the sight of the viewer. Thus, higher relief can do this easier than low relief, but each type of relief has a charm of its own. Knowledgeable artists realized this, of course, and make use of all relief for its interpretation by the human eye.

Also when creating the models, the material is usually of monochrome color (as all white plaster, all gray clay or such). The artist tilts his model often to catch the differ- ent effect and mood created by the shadows. The position of his light source (lamp, window, sun) is important during modeling, the reason so many artists prefer a north light in which to work. Creating the modulated relief is controlling somewhat the shadows of the piece; this is important for the artist as it is for the viewer, or as it is for the photographer of the piece.

Scope of relief.  It must be remembered that the relief models for coins and medals are quite small. Relief can range from the medalet to the monumental. Mount Rushmore can be considered a relief carving and its creator, Gutzon Borglum, also crafted the patterns for coins and medals. Once the artist reaches a level of proficiency in relief sculpture, the scope can vary.

This is evident in other relief objects created by the coin and medal artists as well. These same artists have also produced tablets, architectural reliefs, bronze doors, and medalist John Flanagan even created the relief decoration for the clock in the Library of Congress.

Cataloging relief.  In cataloging coins the type of relief – unless it is sunken or incised relief – need not be mentioned, as all coins are in very low relief or stiacciato.  Medals, however, can be in any of the reliefs described above. A medium relief is considered normal – all others should be identified in cataloging.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


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