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Posted | Last Updated January 06, 2014 at 12:56pm

Sources of Imagery

Suit Signs and Imagery

Above: playing cards were often featured in moralistic or satirical allegories, showing how they were rapidly absorbed into the popular imagination.

The repertoire of motifs employed in playing cards had long been in development in other applied crafts. The craftsmen's tradition throughout the medieval period was to work from sketch-book models, collected on scraps of vellum. These models were copied time after time, so that images spread between workshops and from master to pupil. Images acquired during journeys abroad often contained errors of observation and proportion which were compounded by subsequent copying.

Imagery on many early playing cards resembles the figures which recur in the borders and marginal drollery, miniature illustrations and trompe l'oeil of illuminated manuscripts or in tapestry, carving or sculpture. Often the theme was a playful allusion to tournaments, cavorting children or mock warfare between animals, frequently surrounded by fruits, flowers, acanthus leaves, birds, monkeys and grotesques. Cards were produced by artisans whose main source of income might not necessarily have been playing cards. Abilities varied: where lesser artists represented the stock subjects in a stereotyped way, others were able to visualise scenes afresh.

Designs would also have been influenced by written texts, books on hunting, mystery plays and moralised stories. Plants from the herbal, beasts from the bestiary, birds and insects from the Books of Hours, all suggesting a symbolism, a semiotic language, echoed the everyday world of popular beliefs and folklore.

lion carving from late XIV century choir stall nine of lions by the Master of the Playing-Cards three of herons by the Master of the Playing-Cards

The pack of playing cards gained a format and structure of its own, and became a new language. In the earliest packs the suit symbols might be any everyday objects you could think of: flowers, animals, birds, shields, crowns, pennies, rings, pomegranates… spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds weren't invented until much later.

detail from playing card by the Master of the Banderoles, c.1470

Many early examples of playing cards were preserved inside the covers of old books, where they were used as stiffener. This is fortunate, because nearly all the others have perished.

Above: Lion motif on XIV century choir stall; 9 of lions and 3 of herons engraved by the Master of the Playing Cards, c.1450-60. 137 x 91 mm. The central lion has also been identified as an illustration in the 42-line Bible of Mainz printed by Gutenberg, around 1454/55. Herons occur in the borders of a number of manuscripts and early printed books - the one below is from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c.1440.   See also: South German Spanish-suited engraved playing cards • Master PW Circular Playing Cards.

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