A unique set of animal suited playing cards, copper-engraved and uncoloured, by the Master of the Playing Cards, Germany, c.1450. The engravings are distinct and skillfully produced. The animal suit symbols, 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.
At first sight it appears that playing cards such as these may have served as generic models or design motifs to be used by students, craftsmen or artists. Maybe this is why the details and outlines are clearly legible and not overlapping. Furthermore, such figures of flowers, wild animals and birds recur almost identically incorporated into the border decorations and miniature illustrations of manuscripts or printed books, carvings or sculptures from the same period.
Striking examples can be seen in The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, the Giant Bible of Mainz and the Gutenberg Bible where many correspondences with the playing cards can be found.
The Hours of Catherine of Cleves
The engraved playing cards
The engravings in the playing cards are very close in artistic conception and stylistic execution to the miniatures found in the manuscripts. However, in the manuscripts they are integrated into a composition but in the cards they are isolated. It also turns out that some of the manuscript illustrations may be earlier than the date of the cards, in which case other model books may have been used as a common source. The court cards are wearing the costumes worn at court.
The Giant Bible of Mainz and Gutenberg Bible
Lions and other animals, even small roses illuminated in the margins of the Giant Bible of Mainz, 1450s, and the Gutenberg Bible c.1455, suggest a common source to the cards engraved by the Master of the Playing Cards. In fact many more correspondences of similar images appearing in different manuscripts as well as in the playing cards have been found. The possibility exists that the Master of the Playing Cards and Johannes Gutenberg were working in closely related fields at that time and may have known each other (Lehmann-Haupt, 1966). Mainz was a vibrant centre of arts and crafts where ecclesiastical manuscripts of the highest quality were being written and illuminated. . Maybe the engravings were early attempts to find a mechanical means of reproducing decorative images and patterns in printed books, inspired by existing model books.
Although many cards are now lost, 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, found in model books and used in various other artefacts, including books, sculpture or devotional prints. The engraver may have been working on a new method of printing such images inside books now, or soon to be, printed with moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, and had them printed into packs of playing cards for amusement.
It is ironical that the little copper plates, intended for marginal embellishment in a Bible or ecclesiastical volume, became a pack of playing cards – the Devil’s Picture Book.