December 21, 2010

At the Met: Relief Sculpture

Hieroglyphic Sign for the Name of Thoth, from an Inlaid Insciption, Ptolemaic Period, 330-32 BC; Faience; from el-Ashmunein.

If I had to choose, I would say that my favorite form of sculpture is the relief, both high and low, which may be because it is closer to painting in being tethered to a plane; sensitivity of line is emphasized and narrative flows along the surface. When I walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few days ago, I gave myself the pleasurable assignment of photographing some reliefs from different cultures and time periods. I saw the gorgeous faience inlay above, only 6 inches high, at a small special exhibition in the Egyptian galleries titled "Haremhab, the General who became King". I was struck by its beautiful color and elegant depiction of the ibis and feather, bringing life with a minimum of means.

Funerary Stele of the Gatekeeper Maaty, 2051-2030 BC; limstone; western Thebes, el-Tarif.

Egyptian reliefs are among my most loved of all art objects. In this sunken relief I find the forms a pleasure to look at in their simple yet subtly attentive carving, as though each object depicted has been caressed.

Vessel with Rampant Goats and Olive Trees, late 2nd-early 1st millenium BC; ivory; Egypt, possibly Helmaya; Levantine with Aegean elements.

Although made later than other Egyptian art (and found in the Middle Eastern, not Egyptian galleries), this vessel has the same delicate understanding of animal form. It's a truly delightful object.

Limestone Sarcophagus: the Amathus Sarcophagus; Cypriot, Archaic, 2nd quarter of 5th century BC.

In this piece, I love the way the decorative elements above, which still show some color which flows into the planar background, plays off against the procession of carriages. The regal character and beautiful rendering of the horses elevates the occasion. I'm particularly fond of sensitive images of animals, in which the artist clearly has knowledge of them, as here and in the goat vessel above.

Marble relief with a Dancing Maenad; Roman, Augustan period, ca. 27BC-AD 14; copy of Greek relief of ca. 425-400 BC.

There are many stunning reliefs, both high and low, in the Greek and Roman galleries. I chose the detail of this work in which the fleshy feet, feeling so real and alive (yet in such low relief!) are surrounded by the fluttery edges of a flowing gown. The transformation of stone into something breathing and moving is a marvel.

Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Lives of Saint Peter and Christ; Roman, early 300s; marble.

Here is another lovely animal, as carefully carved and emotional as the figures of the small children.

Fragment of an Ivory Tusk with Christ Enthroned; Byzantine, from Egypt; late 500s-early 600s.

Lest you think I only like more naturalistic renderings, here is a wonderful small ivory with dynamic and expressive design, each element of patterning adding to the quality of the whole.

Ivory Casket with the Parable of the Prodigal Son; France 1330-1350.

I found this small gem in the medieval galleries. Its simple, clear line and low relief that carefully elucidates the form reminds me of the best of Egyptian relief. The other great reliefs that I keep in my mind are the Assyrian lion hunt carvings at the British Museum. All these works make evident that this is a form rich in pictorial and emotional range.


  1. You must have really enjoyed your visit judging from these beautiful shots. Every piece is better than the next. I have to admit that I look forward to your visits to the big city, knowing that we will get to share in your experiences.

  2. Thanks, Linda, I'm glad you like these. I also enjoy my city visits more knowing that I'll go to the Met and discover some wonderful new objects to share.

  3. This is a wonderful photo essay, and I'm so grateful. I was hoping to get to the Met this fall and didn't. I feel like you went for me and found things I might not have seen. I take my sketchbook when I go, and usually plant myself somewhere. I like to draw sculpture. (I wish they had more benches, and put them in better spots!) Now I get to think about low relief. Thanks, Altoon! I'm glad you take your camera.

  4. Susan, you're very welcome. There's always so much to wander through at the Met, always objects that I've overlooked before. A sketchbook sounds great, but I love the ease and magic (capturing the object to take home) of the camera.