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Published February 07, 2017 Updated June 09, 2023

Master of the Playing Cards

Animal suited playing cards engraved by the Master of the Playing Cards, Germany, c.1455

1455 Germany Master of the Playing Cards Engraved History Medieval Printing Archaic Patterns Suits Add to Collection
Detail from animal suited playing cards engraved by the Master of the Playing Cards, Germany, c.1450

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

border detail showing a heron from St. Michael Weighing Souls, illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves, Utrecht, The Netherlands, c.1440. Morgan Library & Museum MS M.945, f. 108v–M.917, p. 29 Animal suited playing card engraved by the Master of the Playing Cards, Germany, c.1450

Left: border detail showing a heron from St. Michael Weighing Souls, illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves, Utrecht, The Netherlands, c.1440. Morgan Library & Museum MSS M.945, f. 108v–M.917, p. 29. Original image here

Both the manuscript border details can be identified in the three of herons card engraved by the Master of the Playing Cards.

below: border detail showing a heron from Pentecost: Judgment of Solomon, illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves, Utrecht, The Netherlands, c.1440. Morgan Library & Museum MS M.917, pp. 52–53. Original image here

detail from Pentecost: Judgment of Solomon, Illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves, c.1440. Morgan Library & Museum MS M.917, pp. 52–53
border detail showing a grazing deer from St. Michael Weighing Souls, illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves, Utrecht, The Netherlands, c.1440. Morgan Library & Museum MS M.945, ff. 89v–90r

Above: border detail showing a grazing deer which also appears in the playing cards. The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.945, f.90r. (Click to zoom). Original image here

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.

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

Above: roses, cyclamens, wild animals, deer and birds appear as suit symbols in these playing cards printed from intaglio plates by the Meister der Spielkarten (Master of the Playing Cards). The cards are not obviously produced as a coherent pack, in sheets of eight or twelve cards, but are produced as individual prints. Many of the prints are made up from several small plates assembled together.

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.

detail from Giant Bible of Mainz nine of wild animals by the Master of the Playing Cards
detail from Giant Bible of Mainz five of lions by the Master of the Playing Cards
a climbing bear from the Gutenberg Bible, William Scheide collection, f.160v

Above: a climbing bear, amongst cyclamens and roses, from hand-painted decorations in a copy of the Gutenberg Bible [William H. Scheide collection, f.160v, 1455] also appears on the nine of wild animals card engraved by the Master of the Playing Cards. The Scheide copy of the Gutenberg Bible contains a large number of miniatures which correspond with the playing cards. Further correspondences have been identified in other copies of the Gutenberg Bible and also in later Mainz printed Bibles.


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 other mythical monsters (Hargrave, 1966). 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.


REFERENCES

Hargrave, Catherine Perry: A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming, Dover Publications, New York, 1966

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

Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut: Gutenberg and the Master of the Playing Cards, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1966

Plummer, John: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, George Braziller, Inc., New York, [undated] c. 1970

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 model books which also appear in alabaster panels, brasses, sculpture or illuminated books. 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

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

Founder 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.


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