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Playing cards have been with us since the 14th century, when they first entered popular culture. Over the centuries packs of cards, in all shapes and sizes, have been used for games, gambling, education, conjuring, advertising, fortune telling, political messages or the portrayal of national or ethnic identity. All over the world, whatever language is spoken, their significance is universal. Their popularity is also due to the imaginative artwork and graphic design which is sometimes overlooked, and the “then & now” of how things have changed.

Early German Engraved Playing-cards

During the second half of the fifteenth century, with printing technology commercially established and playing cards already a mass-produced commodity, a succession of masterly German engravers practised their art and decorative playing cards reached a zenith.

Spanish suited playing cards made in Germany

During the second half of the fifteenth century a succession of masterly German engravers practised their art and decorative playing cards reached a zenith. The South German Engraver was one such craftsman who produced an elaborate, Gothic Spanish-suited pack of playing cards. Slightly before this the Master of the Banderoles also produced engraved Italian or Spanish-suited playing cards of which only eight cards survive. Conforming to an archaic format of 52 cards with banner 10s, female 'Sotas', horsemen and kings, these packs are of interest on account of a number of other packs with similar stylistic characteristics surviving elsewhere, suggesting an archaic prototype for the Spanish-suited genre used between c.1450-1520.

Above: five engraved cards from a pack with Spanish suit symbols made in South Germany around 1480. The inscription 'Valenzia' is visible on some cards and also the coat-of-arms of the kingdom of Aragon, for where the pack was presumably destined. The technique of engraving on copper plates, used here, permits great detail in the finished result.

The example shown above is another anonymous pack sharing similar characteristics with other examples. See also:  Master of the BanderolesThe South German EngraverGothic Spanish Playing CardsMaster PW Circular Playing CardsThe Master of the Playing Cards

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996.

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