The World of Playing Cards Logo

The Combination of Images and Text

When playing cards have titles or legends these reference a written/literary tradition of some form. It connects the image to a wider cultural sphere, extending the visual impact.

The Combination of Images and Text on early playing cards

The Medium is the Message

Four cards by Jean Personne, c.1495

Above: four French cards designed by Jean Personne, c.1495. The cards carry inscriptions such as "Paris", "Melusine", "Conte de Chalou" and the maker's name, "Jhan Personne".

Many early playing cards had titles or legends alongside the images. These referenced a written/literary tradition of some form (historical, religious or secular literature, legends, etc), connecting the image to a wider cultural sphere, extending the visual impact. For example, French court cards were given names of heroes of antiquity, such as Caesar, Charlemagne, Paris or Lancelot, thereby connecting to the written body of French literature. This tradition goes back to the fifteenth century or even earlier. Some historians believe that court cards are actually based on these historical personages, but this is not necessarily true.

Above: four cards from a primitive Latin suited pack, dated by paper analysis as “early XV century”. The cards are untitled, without any legends.

But many early cards were unnamed and unnumbered, so they were understood by card players on their own terms. If the cards are just images, with no title or legend, then the images must speak for themselves. There is no explicit reference to any text, or suggestion that the cards are based on historical persons.

The advent of printing with movable type boosted the spread of literacy and the playing card was also used as a medium to propagate the printed word.

Thus the presence of printed text or titles on playing cards adds a new level of meaning and raises their cultural status to a more rational, literate or pedagogic level; a vehicle for political or educational purposes (as well as a game of luck and skill). Today of course this might be an advertising message.


Hand-drawn and hand-painted Mamluk Playing Cards, XV or early XVI century

The early Arabic Mamluk cards incorporated calligraphic texts, rhyming aphorisms, evoking thoughts of a religious nature, on the court cards (inside the blue areas). But because of Islamic law, instead of images of human figures we see only abstract geometric designs on the rest of the cards. The written words transform these into sublime messengers.

“As for the present that rejoices, thy heart will soon open up“ - “I will, as pearls on a string, be lifted in the hands of kings” - “May God give thee prosperity; then thou will already have achieved thy aim” - “Rejoice for thy lasting happiness” - “Rejoice in the pleasant things and the success of the objects” - “I am as a flower, a string of pearls is my soil?” - “The alif rejoices and fulfils your wishes” - “Whosoever will call me to his happiness, he will only see joyful looks”.

These Arabic playing cards are believed to be the progenitors of playing cards in the West   more →


Cary Collection uncut sheet of tarot cards c.1500

Above: detail from the Cary Collection uncut and uncoloured sheet of tarot cards (housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut) probably printed in Milan and possibly dating as early as c.1500. The images are untitled and unnumbered, suggesting that players must have already known the sequence or hierarchy of trump cards in play from contemporary knowledge.

Tarot de Marseille, Jean-Baptiste Madenié, Dijon probably before c.1739

Above: Tarot de Marseille by Jean-Baptiste Madenié, Dijon, early 18th century. The trump cards are named and numbered to designate their value during play. Images courtesy Frederic C. Detwiller.

In the case of tarot trumps the early examples are unnamed and unnumbered. Again, they were implicitly understood or memorised by the players. In some instances initial letters or monograms were added to denote a secret meaning which is often lost.

the 'Sun' from the Goldschmidt tarot

Above: the 'Sun' from the Goldschmidt tarot. The three initial letters in gothic script imply an association with a certain teaching or literary text which may have been available only to initiates, but which is now unknown. Thus a whole new level of meaning could be attributed to a simple playing card by means of a few letters.

Legends and numbers were added later to tarot trumps to denote their value or hierarchy so that a canon was established which today we take for granted. Some people believe the tarot cards are a channel for esoteric thought. There were exceptions to this: Animal Tarots and other games with non-standard trump cards did not usually have titles or metaphysical associations.

The phonetic alphabet is a unique technology which, through its uniform and sequential logic, has created civilized man, with codes of law, ledgers and ultimately, printed books. In a humble way, playing cards have participated in this development by becoming a medium for the message....

avatar

By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

View Articles

Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.


Leave a Reply

Recommended

1880 Dutch costume playing cards from an unknown maker

Dutch costume playing cards from an unknown maker

Another pack of Dutch costume playing cards c.1880.

1860 Dutch costume playing cards

Dutch costume playing cards

Dutch costume playing cards made for the Dutch market in the second half of the 19th century.

1705 Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne

Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne

“Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne” cover historical events, both honourable and treacherous, during the period 1702 to 1704.

72: The Ace of Spades

72: The Ace of Spades

In standard English packs the Ace of Spades is associated with decorative designs. This is a historical survey of why this should be.

Dubois

Dubois

Dubois card makers from Liège in the Walloon Region of Belgium.

PLAYING CARDS: A Secret History

PLAYING CARDS: A Secret History

PLAYING CARDS: A Secret History

A. Camoin & Cie

A. Camoin & Cie

This deck was inherited from ancestors, it has has a family history surrounding it. Details of the lives of previous owners make it all so fascinating.

History of Playing Cards explained in 5 Minutes

History of Playing Cards explained in 5 Minutes

Video by Art of Impossible. In this video you will get a short overview of the most important historical facts about playing cards and their history.

1584 Toledo, 1584

Toledo, 1584

Archaic Spanish-suited deck with 48 cards made in Toledo in 1584.

1500 Gambling and Vice in the Middle Ages

Gambling and Vice in the Middle Ages

Gambling and Vice in the Hours of Charles V: card-playing in the local tavern

“Deck with French suits”

“Deck with French suits”

A facsimile of an early 19th century French-suited deck from the collection of F.X. Schmid.

1888 Heraldic playing cards

Heraldic playing cards

Reproduction of Richard Blome’s Heraldic playing cards, 1684, presented to lady guests at WCMPC Summer Meeting in 1888.

1698 Le Jeu de la Guerre

Le Jeu de la Guerre

Facsimile of “Le Jeu de la Guerre” designed by Gilles de la Boissière in 1698.

1864 Corner Indices

Corner Indices

Corner Indices were a major innovation in playing card production.

1800 Baraja Carlos IV by Félix Solesio, 1800

Baraja Carlos IV by Félix Solesio, 1800

Baraja Carlos IV, Félix Solesio en la Real Fábrica de Macharaviaya, 1800.

71: Woodblock and stencil: the hearts

71: Woodblock and stencil: the hearts

A presentation of the main characteristics of the wood-block courts of the heart suit.

70: Woodblock and stencil : the spade courts

70: Woodblock and stencil : the spade courts

This is a presentation in a more straightforward fashion of the work done by Paul Bostock and me in our book of the same name.

66: Adverts and related material 1862-1900

66: Adverts and related material 1862-1900

Some further material relating to cards from nineteenth and twentieth century periodicals.

1878 Tyrolean Playing Cards

Tyrolean Playing Cards

Facsimile of patriotic 1878 Tyrolean playing cards published by Piatnik in 1992.

65: Adverts and related documents 1684-1877

65: Adverts and related documents 1684-1877

Here are a few early advertisements relating to cards from newspapers 1684-1759 and a number of later 19th century documents of interest.

1796 Prisoners of War

Prisoners of War

Hand-made playing cards by French prisoners of war in Porchester Castle, Hampshire, c.1796.

64: The descendants of the French regional patterns: 2

64: The descendants of the French regional patterns: 2

A continuation of the development of the off-spring of the Paris patterns and a few examples of how the French regional figures have inspired modern designers.

63: The descendants of the French regional patterns: 1

63: The descendants of the French regional patterns: 1

A great many regional patterns were exported from France and subsequently copied elsewhere. Some of them became local standards in their own right.

62: French regional patterns: the queens and jacks

62: French regional patterns: the queens and jacks

Continuing our look at the figures from the regional patterns of France.

61: French regional patterns: the kings

61: French regional patterns: the kings

On page 11 I illustrated several examples of the regional French patterns from Sylvia Mann's collection; this is a more in-depth look at the figures of these patterns ("portraits" in French).

1750 Iohann Christoph Hes Tarot c.1750

Iohann Christoph Hes Tarot c.1750

Facsimile of Tarot de Marseille by Iohann Christoph Hes, Augsburg, c.1750.

Notgeld - Emergen¢y Money

Notgeld - Emergen¢y Money

Notgeld - Emergency Money - was in rare cases issued on playing cards.

60: Some less common Goodall packs, 1875-95

60: Some less common Goodall packs, 1875-95

There are some interesting packs from Goodall in the last quarter of the 19th century.

1885 Bicycle Playing Cards, 1st edition

Bicycle Playing Cards, 1st edition

1st edition of famous Bicycle Playing Cards printed by Russell & Morgan Printing Co., Cincinnati, 1885.

Trentine Pattern

Trentine Pattern

Trentine Pattern

Primiera Bolognese

Primiera Bolognese

Primiera Bolognese by Modiano, c.1975

Johannes Müller c.1840

Johannes Müller c.1840

Facsimile edition of Swiss suited deck first published by Johannes Müller in c.1840.

1786 Pedro Varangot, 1786

Pedro Varangot, 1786

Archaic Navarra pattern produced for the Pamplona General Hospital Monopoly by Pedro Varangot in 1786.

1682 Navarra Pattern, 1682

Navarra Pattern, 1682

Navarra pattern produced for the Pamplona General Hospital Monopoly in 1682.

Hermanos Solesi

Hermanos Solesi

“Money Bag” pattern by Hermanos Solesi, late 18th c.

1740 Illustrated Playing Cards, c.1740

Illustrated Playing Cards, c.1740

Illustrated playing cards featuring comical engravings and rhymes about saints, c.1740.

1793 Navarra Pattern, 1793

Navarra Pattern, 1793

Navarra pattern by an unknown cardmaker with initials I. I., 1793.

1760 Anonymous Spanish Suited pack, c.1760

Anonymous Spanish Suited pack, c.1760

Anonymous archaic Spanish Suited pack, c.1760

1682 Geographical Playing Cards, c.1682

Geographical Playing Cards, c.1682

Geographical playing cards sold by Henry Brome, second edition, c.1682.

1610 XVII Century Engraved Animal Cards

XVII Century Engraved Animal Cards

French suited German engraved cards c1610 to 1650,