Bas Relief vs. Relief
(originally a post on my LiveJournal)
relief (n): the projection of a figure
or part from the ground or plane on which it is formed, as in
sculpture or similar work.
bas relief (n): relief sculpture in which the figures project
slightly from the background.
If you are an artist or archeologist, then the differences
between "bas relief," "relief," and "high relief" (aka
"alto-relievo") are significant.
If you aren't an an artist or archeologist, those differences
aren't significant, and you probably just need to use the term
"relief." Especially if you're describing something for the
benefit of fantasy adventurers, as most of them couldn't tell
the difference. Or consider using the word "carving" or
I think a lot of gamers today use "bas relief" when they just
mean "relief" because Gary Gygax used it in some 1e adventures.
I'm pretty sure Gygax knew the difference, but you and I and the
other 10-year-old kids read the phrase and interpreted it to
mean "a sculpture-carving on the wall" rather than "a type of
sculpture-carving on the wall where the figures project 50% or
less from the background."
I've given this particular matter a lot of thought over the
years. As someone who USED TO know the differences between
different types of "relief" off the top of my head (but now
has to think about it a minute or two before the definitions
bubble up from memory) ... and as someone who writes and edits
for people who generally don't know the difference (and really
don't care), it's been a contentious one even in my own mind.
People tend to prefer the term bas relief even though
they don't know the detailed classification for that style of
sculpture. For them, "bas relief" is the generic term. For
people who DO know the difference, it sounds silly to specify
what type of relief when it really doesn't matter.
I'm not sure I've ever come to a firm conclusion on my
own. But at times I've preferred, as you suggest, to stick to
just "relief" unless the type is important. At other times,
I've thought that since the average person reader seems to
prefer "bas relief" and since the type of relief was
immaterial, it was best to give the reader what he or she was
My father is a bronze sculptor, so that's how the terms entered
my vocabulary at a young age.
I've always used "bas relief" simply on the grounds of every
player I've ever roleplayed with knew what I was referring to.
Imagine you had a new food for the first time. You ask someone
what it is, and they tell you it's called "cheese-pizza."
Thereafter, whenever you have this food (which is rarely), you
call it cheese-pizza. Then you read on Sean's blog that what
you've actually been eating is pizza, and in particular you've
been having cheese pizza but there are other kinds of pizza.
Would you still go on calling it cheese-pizza, even when it had
ham or sausage or vegetables or pepperoni on it?
And if it has an ovine motif, it is a baa relief.
Or if its a fish, is it a bass relief?