What is a bas-relief?
Relief is a sculptural technique where the artist carves his subject out of a flat, solid background. Relief can be done in varying degrees, from bas relief, a shortening of the Italian word “basso rilievo,” just meaning low relief, to high relief.
In a high relief, the figures and subjects extend further from the background; generally by more than half of the sculpture’s mass. Conversely, the bas-relief remains a shallow sculpture, with figures that barely protrude from the surface behind. These techniques can be used to varying degrees, even within the same piece of artwork, as in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise in Florence, which utilizes high relief for the main foreground figures and bas-relief to depict the background environment.
As one of the oldest forms of art, bas-relief has been used by many different civilizations. Some of the earliest discovered bas-reliefs were carved into rock caves around 30,000 years ago. The style became immensely popular in the ancient empires of Egypt, Assyria, and later Persia.
Combined bas-relief and high-relief was a particularly favorite in Greece and Rome. These reliefs from ancient civilizations have proved invaluable for historians in the reconstruction of past cultures and events, and perhaps none more so than the intricate bas-reliefs of the palace at Persepolis.
Persepolis and the Persian Empire
The bas-reliefs of Persepolis were carved when the Persian Empire was at the heights of its great power. In 559 B.C., frustrated by the tightening grip of the Median Empire, Cyrus the Great had ousted the former king, established the new Persian Empire, and quickly consolidated territory. By the time Darius the Great, Cyrus’s great-grandnephew, reached the pinnacle of his rule, the Persian Empire encompassed the majority of what is now the middle east, northern Africa, west and central Asia, and even to the Indus valley in India.
This grand empire required a capital to match it, and in 515 B.C., the earliest construction began on Persepolis, an entirely new metropolis located in the mountains of modern day Iran. Too remote to serve as the day-to-day center of administration, its true function was that of a grand ceremonial center, particularly in audiences for foreign dignitaries and the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Cyrus may have chosen the site, but in the end Darius oversaw most of the design and construction of the key imperial buildings. He commissioned sculptors to adorn these buildings with numerous and extravagant bas-reliefs.
Though the Persians did make records through inscriptions and some writing, their historical traditional was largely oral and pictorial. The beautiful bas-reliefs not only displayed the history and glory of the empire to ancient visitors, but they have continued to tell their story to modern viewers, providing valuable insight into the once great civilization.
Life imitated art in the Apadana
One of the key indicators as to the identity of the Apadana, the ornate audience hall in the palace complex, was the collection of bas-relief sculptures lining its walls and staircases. The images depict guards, courtiers, and ambassadors from every corner of the Persian Empire. Historians and archeologists have been able to identify the individual delegations, including Egyptians, Parthians, Arabs, Babylonians, Nubians, Greeks, and many, many more. Not only do the reliefs provide evidence of the nations that paid tribute to the Persians, they also provide historians with important details regarding those nations, and especially of the commodities and values associated to them.
All reliefs point to the king, but also reflect the overall nature of the kingdom
Perhaps the most exotic and cherished tribute came from the Susians, who are shown presenting Darius with a lioness and her two cubs. The lion was a traditional symbol of royalty in Persia. Representations of lions can be found frequently in Persepolis, for the city’s entire purpose, after all, was to direct attention to the great king of Persia. The central relief, now displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Tehran, brought the focus of the room and all its carved figures to the image of Darius, seated on his throne, flanked by his son, and receiving the tributes of the visitors.
In four separate locations around the Persepolis palace is an image of a lion in conflict with a bull. This motif dates back at least as far as the Stone Age, and its exact meaning is still being debated today. In one sense, the struggle is a loose symbol for eternity, the constant tension of life versus death and each releasing the other.
The Persepolis relief is thought to perhaps symbolize the defeat of winter, represented as the bull, by the spring equinox in the form of the lion, thus reflecting the New Year celebration that the palace housed. Yet curiously, while the lion was a symbol of Persian royalty, the bull was traditionally the symbol of Persia itself. In the permanent stone struggle of the lion and the bull, there may be a reflection of the monarchy itself. The lion dominates the bull, and yet the lion cannot live without the bull either.
As striking as the reliefs are now, they are only a shadow of their original glory
The reliefs that survived are only a fragment of the original magnitude
Persia’s dominance came to an end with the arrival of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. He and his soldiers took Persepolis in a state of heightened tension. Long simmering fury over the Persian sack of Athens a century before, upset at having just fought their most costly battle yet at the Persian Gates, and anger at the discovery of a number of Greek prisoners who had been horribly tortured and mutilated by their Persian captors, whipped the battle-hardened soldiers into an emotional firestorm. Late one night, the most important ceremonial buildings went up in flames.
Ironically, the disastrous fire actually does have a modern silver lining. The inferno collapsed the walls of the building that housed the Persepolis Administrative Archives and buried the tablets beneath. Without the protection of that debris, the tablets would likely have been destroyed over the following thousands of years. Instead, archaeologists were able to carefully excavate and preserve those records for further study.