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Master of the Playing Cards

The Master of the Playing Cards, c.1450

Detail from animal suited playing cards engraved by the Master of the Playing Cards, Germany, c.1450

Animal suited playing cards, copper-engraved and uncoloured, by the “Master of the Playing Cards”, Germany, c.1450, possibly intended as models for use in workshops but also to be admired. The engravings are distinct and skillfully produced. The animal suit symbols, although depicting characteristic mannerisms and behaviour, are laid out formally in a clear arrangement. Many of the images are printed from individual plates which are repeated on several cards in the same suit. Playing cards such as these may have served as repositories or copy books for design motifs to be used by other craftsmen and artists, and for this reason it was important that the details and outlines were clearly legible and not overlapping so that they could be used as models. Such figures of flowers, deer, lions, unicorns, doves and herons, for example, recur almost identically incorporated into the border decorations and miniature illustrations of manuscripts or printed books, carvings or sculptures from the same period.

Animal suited playing cards engraved by the Master of the Playing Cards, Germany, c.1450

There appear to have been several sets of cards attributed to “The Master of the Playing Cards” for the cards vary in shape and size. In one series the suits are bears, lions, stags, birds, flowers and leaves, and there are remnants of other series with frogs, dogs, rabbits, leopards, dragons and so on. The number cards seem to run from one to nine in each suit, with three or four court cards in each suit: King, Queen, an Upper and/or Lower Knave. One possible explanation for the diversity of suit signs is that cards were made to order according to the desire of the buyer, but more likely they were from the standard repertoire of stock images used in various other artefacts, including books, sculpture or devotional prints. Standardisation had not yet become established. The court cards are in the costumes worn at court.

9 of lions upper jack of lions 3 of herons queen of men queen of doves

Only one coloured card by The Master of the Playing Cards has come down to us - a Knave of Flowers, wearing a red jacket trimmed with brown fur and red stockings, and holding a red rose, he stands on a green strip of grass. The background is painted blue. The colour scheme is similar to the Ambras Hunting cards.

king of lions king of men 8 of stags lower jack of doves


Husband, Timothy B: The World in Play, Luxury Cards 1430-1540, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2015

Wikipedia: Master of the Playing Cards

Below: church decorations, for so long the picture books of medieval education, show numerous examples of the way in which decorative artists borrowed designs from alabaster panels, brasses, sculpture or the Block Books which preceded the discovery of printing from moveable type, and which continued in use for some years after printed books were on the market. The illustration below shows a carved misericord from the choir stalls in Chester cathedral, late XIV century.

Chester Cathedral choir stall misericord, late 14th century

See also: The Ambras Hunting PackThe Stuttgart PackMaster of the BanderolesMaster PW Circular Playing CardsEarly German Engraved CardsThe South German EngraverThe History of Playing-cards

Last Updated April 23, 2016 at 11:12am


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