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Kids/Big Kids Corner
First Posted: Jan 3, 2011
Mar 6, 2012

Horse Reliefs

Horse reliefs can be found all over the world from ancient times to the present. There are too many to show on HorseHints, however, this article will give an overview of the different kinds of reliefs, with examples. It is meant to be an introduction that will hopefully be of interest to you. Perhaps you may want to continue learning about the many reliefs and their history. This may be an idea of a project that you can do with your children. It would be fun and educational as well as provide quality time together.

Bill and I travel often to many parts of the globe. I always have my camera ready to take pictures of the lovely art forms from other cultures. Reliefs are many and varied. We have seen them all through the Asian world on temples, columns, buildings, etc. India and Nepal have carved reliefs every where you look as does Thailand, Cambodia, China, etc. We saw endless reliefs in the Middle East in Egypt and Jordan. Europe is also full of reliefs as is South America, Central America and Mexico. We have many reliefs in the United States, as well. It is an art form that has transcended the centuries and enjoyed by all. Weather the reliefs are from antiquity or new, they are special in their own right.

What Is A Relief?

A relief is a sculptured artwork where a carved or modelled form is raised (or in the case of a sunken relief, lowered) from a plane from which the main elements of the composition project (or sink). Raising or lowering the plane is achieved by removing material not relevant to the image. In the case of sunken relief, the material composing the central image is carved out.

Reliefs are common throughout the world, for example on the walls of monumental buildings. The frieze in the classical Corinthian order is often enriched with bas-relief (low relief). Alto-relievo (high relief) can be seen in the pediments of classical temples such as the Parthenon. Several panels or sections of relief together may represent a sequence of scenes.

There are three main types of relief. The distinction between high and low relief is somewhat subjective, and the two are very often combined in a single work. In particular, most "high reliefs" contain sections in low relief...

Bas-relief or Low Relief

A bas-relief ("low relief",from the Italian basso rilievo) or low relief is a projecting image with a shallow overall depth. The background is very compressed or completely flat, as on most coins, on which all images are in low relief.

A Persian bas-relief from the Qajar era, located at Tangeh Savashi in Iran.

Lorenzo Ghiberti's gilded bronze "Doors of Paradise" at the Baptistery, Florence combine high-relief main figures with backgrounds mostly in low relief. Bas-relief is very suitable for scenes with many figures and other elements such as a landscape or architectural background. A bas-relief may use any medium or technique of sculpture, but stone carving and metal casting are the traditional ones. If more than half of most rounded or cylindrical elements such as heads and legs project from the background, a sculpture is usually considered to be alto rilievo or "high relief", although the degree of relief within both types may vary across a composition, with prominent features such as faces in higher relief.

Bas-relief in Persepolis. A Zoroastrian symbol of Nowruz - on the vernal equinox the powers of the eternally fighting bull (personifying the Earth) and lion (personifying the Sun) are equal.

High Relief

High relief (or alto relievo, from Italian) is where the most prominent elements of the composition are undercut and rendered at more than half in the round against the background. All cultures and periods in which large sculptures were created used this technique. It is seen in "monumental sculpture" and architecture from ancient times to present.

Detail in high relief from the Ancient Greek Elgin Marbles. Some front limbs are detached from the background completely, while the centaur's left rear leg is in low relief.

Athens, Parthenon, section of the "Elgin Marbles", now in British Museum, London, Duveen Gallery.

Sunken Relief

Strong shadows are needed to define the image. Sunken relief, also known as intaglio or hollow relief, is where the image is made by carving into a flat surface. The images are usually mostly linear in nature. It is most notably associated with the art of Ancient Egypt, where the strong sunlight usually needed to make the technique successful for images is present most of the time. In the sculpture of many cultures, including Europe, it is mostly used for inscriptions and engraved gems - the most likely meaning for "an intaglio".

Seti I's Campaigns - Ca. 1280 BCE - Sandstone - Temple of Amun at Karnak, Thebes
Sunken relief

Parthenon Selene Horse - Elgin Marble

Stone relief of a soldier on a horse from the palace of King Kapara
British Museum
Aramaean, mid-10th century BC
From Tell Halaf (ancient Guzana), north-east Syria, Decoration for a royal palace

This relief of a soldier on a horse comes from the Aramaean city of Guzana (modern Tell Halaf, Old Testament Gozan). The city reached its peak of prosperity around the middle of the tenth century BC under King Kapara. This relief came from the base of the south wall of Kapara's palace which was lined with a series of 187 reliefs carved in black basalt alternating with red-ochre tinted limestone. The cuneiform inscription in front of the rider reads 'Palace of Kapara, son of Hidianu.'

By 1000 BC, a number of Aramaean city states had emerged in Syria and upper Mesopotamia. Guzana was the capital of the Aramaean state of Bit Bahiani and grew rich by controlling important trade routes as well as through the agricultural wealth of the region.

During this period horses were being bred which were sufficiently strong to support a rider and cavalry emerged as an important element of armies. The most effective use of soldiers and horses was made by the re-emerging kingdom of Assyria. By the ninth century BC, Guzana had been absorbed into the empire of Assyria. The tradition of wall reliefs was adopted by the Assyrians who decorated the interior of their mud-brick palaces with large alabaster relief panels.

Khosrow Parviz is standing here. On his left is Ahura Mazda, on his right is Anahita, and below is, Khosrau dressed as a mounted Persian knight riding on his favorite horse, Shabdiz.

English: Relief Taq-e Bostan (Kermanshah Province in Iran) from the era of Sassanid Empire: One of the oldest depictions of a cataphract. (A cataphract was a form of heavy cavalry utilized in ancient warfare by a number of peoples in Western Eurasia and the Eurasian Steppe.)The figure on top in the middle is believed to be Khosrow II. The figure to the right is Ahura Mazda, and to the left is the Persian Goddess Anahita. The cataphract is not known, although various theories exist on his identity, but he is certainly of royal nobility.

Shabdiz was the legendary black stallion of Khosrau Parvez, one of the most famed Sassanid Persian kings (reigned 590 to 628CE). Shabdiz, meaning "midnight", was reputedly the "world's fastest horse" according to ancient Persian literature. In Nizami's romantic epic Khosrau and Shirin, it is Khosrau's 'beloved' Shabdiz that whisks his future bride, Shirin, to meet him after Shirin has fallen in love with Khosrau's portrait. It was Barbad, who through a song, potentially risking his life, informed the king of Shabdiz's death.

Li ShiMin's Horses (a.k.a. Emperor Tang TaiZong)
A bas-relief of a soldier and horse with elaborate saddle and stirrups, from the tomb of Emperor Taizong, c. 650.

Youth with his dog, mastering a horse with a metal bridle (now lost). Marble relief, Roman artwork inspired by Greek classical models, ca. 125 AD. From the Villa Adriana, near Tivoli. Roman gallery, British Museum (London).

China, History, horses, Li Shimin, Tang Dynasty

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Iranian emperor Shapur I (on horseback) capturing Roman emperor Valerian (kneeing) and Philip the Arab (standing)

Robert Gould Shaw (depicted on horse) was a first cousin of Alexander Agassiz's wife Anna Russell and he was a nephew of Quincy Adams Shaw, who married Louis Agassiz's daughter, Pauline Agassiz. The 54th was made up of African-Americans.

For More Information and Images of Reliefs from Around the World:

Relief Images from Greece
Egyptian Reliefs
Ancient Art

Kids/Big Kids Corner