The World of Playing Cards Logo

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.

Master PW Circular Cards

Master PW Circular Playing Cards: roses, columbines, carnations, parrots and hares... everyday objects evoking life and fertility.

Master PW Circular Playing Cards, c.1500

Detail from Queen of Hares, Master PW Circular Playing Cards, c.1500

A pack of playing cards with five suits: roses, columbines, carnations, parrots and hares... everyday objects suggesting the natural world of life and fertility.

This pack of seventy-two round playing cards shows the artist in top creative form. The imagery depicts plants and animals based on the study of nature, rather than copied from artists' model books as previous engravers of cards had done (e.g. Master of the Playing Cards). Flowers are shown in various stages of bloom. The name of the engraver is unknown but he is known today as the Master P.W. due to his monogram.

Master PW's monogram

The inscription “Salve Felix Colonia” (Hail, happy Cologne) accompanied by three crowns of the Cologne coat of arms on the title card confirms that the cards were made in Cologne. There are fourteen cards per suit: King, Queen, Upper and Lower Valet (or Squire and Man-at-Arms) and ten numerals, with Latin inscriptions on the Ace in each suit. The Kings and Queens are lavishly dressed figures on horseback (or a donkey). The detail includes embroidered brocade material and elaborate jewel adornments on the headgear and edges of the gowns. Even the horses have decorative livery and are depicted in anatomical detail. There are no references to religion but only to social class, costumes and nature.

Master PW Circular Playing Cards, c.1500 Master PW Circular Playing Cards, c.1500

Above: Master PW Circular Playing Cards (1499-1515 approx. dates of activity). The five suits, rather than the customary four, are: Hares, Parrots, Carnations (or Pinks), Columbines (or Aquilegias) and Roses. The total number of cards is 72; diameter = 70 mms (outer borderline). All seventy-two of Master PW's designs have survived in from one to six impressions, but no single repository owns a complete deck. Copies are preserved at: Bologna (sixty-nine cards) and Dresden (fifty-two); the British Museum, London; Vienna; Cologne, Rothchild Collection, Paris; Amsterdam and Boston. The British Museum makes its collection database available to be used by scholars across the world.

These playing cards were copied by Teleman de Wesel, the Lower Rhenish engraver (in reverse) although the suit of roses as well as all of the tens from Master PW's series were eliminated and substituted by four new under-knaves. The cards were also copied by the Cologne engraver, Johann Bussemacher (Cologne 1591) and Jacob Binck.

The engraving of lines in metal in order to print on paper developed from the goldsmith's long-established practice of decorating metal with engraved patterns. The technique was first used for printing on paper in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. It was considered the most noble and appropriate technique in which to render the work of great masters. Since none of Master PW's surviving cards are mounted on stiff card, the question arises whether they were actually intended for play. Although it is known that circular cards were used in India, the circular format was not the norm in the West. Of course, circular illustrations were known in the 15th & 16th centuries depicting occupations of the months and calendar illustrations. Likewise, naturalistic flowers, birds and animals occur in the borders of books of hours. We see here how the profane world of the medieval playing card had close connections with religious artwork.

“The extra card in which Death is clutching at a nude woman give these round cards the character of a series which was only intended for looking at. Having found pleasure in the sequence of roses, columbines, parrots, hares and pinks, having admired the ingenious arrangement of the flowers and animals and the quality of the draughtmanship, having smiled at the sometimes cranky kings, queens and knaves and having reflected on the slogans on the ace cards, one is reminded by the final card of the transitory nature of mortal beauty”  [quoted from Detlef Hoffmann, 1973].

People are still superstitious today, but in the past they were more so. Cards would play a part in how they made sense of the world in an era when there were so many unexplained mysteries. They are more than just a pack of cards, people could read into the symbols and inscriptions, draw analogies, make decisions or find meaning in everyday life. The inscriptions on the five Aces are as follows:

Ace of Roses: “Pepulit Vires Casus Animo Qui Tulit Aequo” which translates as: “He defeats the power of chance who endures with equanimity”. • Ace of Aquilegias (Pinks): “Par Ille Superis cui Pariter Dies Et Fortuna Fuit”, which translates as: “He is equal to the gods who equally received time and fortune”. • Ace of Carnations: “Fortuna Opes Auferre Non Animum Potest”, which translates as: “Fortune can take away wealth but not fortitude”. • Ace of Hares: “Felix Media Quisquis Turbae Parte Quietus”, which translates as: “He is happy who is quiet in the middle of turmoil”. • Ace of Parrots: “Quicquid Facimus Venit Ex Alto”, which translates as: “Whatever we do comes from aloft”.

Cards from facsimile edition of Master PW Circular Playing Cards

Above: in the rectangular version published by Lo Scarabeo, Turin, Italy (2004), the Aquilegia suit was omitted, the four Squires removed and two jokers added, so that modern games can be played.

A style of manuscript illumination during the high Gothic period, around the late 15th / early 16th century, involved decorating the margins with a luxurious array of strewn flowers, fruits, small animals and insects, painted in a naturalistic style on a gold background. In the example of a Missal shown below, the roundels in the borders also contain miniature illustrations of saints of the month, each accompanied by an appropriate symbol by which he may be recognised.

early 16th century Missal with naturalistic flowers strewn in borders

Above: Calendar page from an early sixteenth century missal, corresponding to the month of August, in the zodiac sign of Virgo, showing naturalistic strewn flowers in the borders, not unlike those used as suit symbols by the Master PW in his playing cards.

References:

Hoffmann, Detlef: The Playing Card, an illustrated history, Edition Leipzig, 1973

Humphreys, Henry Noel: The Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages, illustrated by Owen Jones, originally published in 1849, re-published by Bracken Books, London, 1989

V&A Museum, London

avatar

By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

View Articles

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

Recommended

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.

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

Jeu “Gerente”

Jeu “Gerente”

Jeu “Gerente” - published by Moncar in 1983 in the “Cartes de Fantasie” series.

Middle Ages

Middle Ages

Middle Ages by Germano & Cª, (Litografia Maia),

Illustrated Playing Cards, c.1740

Illustrated Playing Cards, c.1740

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

XVII Century Engraved Animal Cards

XVII Century Engraved Animal Cards

French suited German engraved cards c1610 to 1650,

Forrest Cards, c.1750s

Forrest Cards, c.1750s

Hand-coloured Forrest Cards produced for “Young Gentlemen & Ladys who are Lovers of Ingenuity”, c.1750s.

Delightful Cards, c.1723

Delightful Cards, c.1723

Delightful Cards, containing variety of entertainment for young Ladies and Gentlemen c.1723.

Romance Español

Romance Español

“Romance Español” designed by Carlos Sáenz de Tejada and published by Heraclio Fournier in various editions since 1951.

Baraja “Neoclásica”, Madrid, 1810

Baraja “Neoclásica”, Madrid, 1810

Baraja “Neoclásica” engraved by José Martínez de Castro, first published by Clemente Roxas, Madrid, 1810.

Baraja Mitológica

Baraja Mitológica

“Baraja Mitológica” was first published in Madrid in c.1815 by Josef Monjardín from engravings by José Martínez de Castro.

Europe

Europe

“Europe” designed by Teodoro N. Miciano and printed by Heraclio Fournier in 1962, portraying XIV century European fashions.

Fairy Brand Round Playing Cards No.200A

Fairy Brand Round Playing Cards No.200A

Fairy Brand Round Playing Cards No.200A

Master of the Playing Cards

Master of the Playing Cards

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

Bubble Cards, 1720

Bubble Cards, 1720

Bubble Cards - known as “All the Bubbles”, c.1720.

La Baraja

La Baraja

Anonymous “La Baraja” Spanish deck, c.2005.

Hidden meanings in painting by Jheronimus Bosch

Hidden meanings in painting by Jheronimus Bosch

Medieval View of Gambling in the ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Jheronimus Bosch

Unknown Maker

Unknown Maker

Early German deck by unknown maker, c.1825

Joseph Losch

Joseph Losch

French-suited pack with full-length courts by Joseph Losch, c.1800.

Stuttgart pack, c.1430

Stuttgart pack, c.1430

The luxury, hand-painted Stuttgart Cards (Stuttgarter Kartenspiel) dated c.1430, with suits of ducks, falcons, stags and hounds.

Jeu de Bataille

Jeu de Bataille

“Jeu de Bataille” card game published by Éditions Willeb, Paris. The court cards represent characters from different nationalities or ethnic groups who are presumably engaged in battle

Donald’s Circular Snap

Donald’s Circular Snap

Donald’s Circular Snap published by Pepys, 1951.

Flemish Hunting Deck

Flemish Hunting Deck

Set of medieval playing cards with King, Queen, Knave and numeral cards from one to ten in each of four suits which refer to the activity of hunting, as practiced by the nobility.

Four Centuries

Four Centuries

“Four Centuries” playing cards by Esselte Öbergs with court cards depicted as caricatures from different historical periods.

Globe Card Company

Globe Card Company

“Globe Playing Cards” patented on Oct. 6, 1874 by I. N. Richardson.

British Museum Playing Cards

British Museum Playing Cards

Unique pack of playing cards created for the British Museum with illustrations by Frances Button.

Hans Sebald Beham

Hans Sebald Beham

Playing cards designed by Hans Sebald Beham (1500–1550).

Battle of Grunwald

Battle of Grunwald

Medieval style playing cards commemorating the Battle of Grunwald (1410), designed and published by Studio Wena, 2011

Indian Ganjifa

Indian Ganjifa

‘Ganjifa’ playing cards made in Sheopor in the North of Madhya Pradesh province in Central India. The Ganjifa game probably developed from 13th century games played by Mamluk immigrants from China.

Daveluy

Daveluy

Daveluy produced card games between c.1840 and 1890. Many of his playing cards have historical connotations and show figures with a landscape background.

Première Croisade

Première Croisade

‘Première Croisade’ with single-ended courts by Daveluy, Bruges, c.1850.

Moyen-Age by Daveluy

Moyen-Age by Daveluy

Cartes Moyen-Age by Daveluy, Bruges, c.1875.

Jeu Moyen Age

Jeu Moyen Age

Quénioux believed that aesthetic feelings are the highest values: “C’est précisément cet amour de l’artisan pour le travail qu’il accomplit, la satisfaction intime qu’il en éprouve, qui ont donné naissance à tous les arts et qui ont fait dire que l’art est la joie dans le travail”.

I.M.F. Engraved Cards

I.M.F. Engraved Cards

Playing cards had been made as precious objects for wealthy clients since the late 14th century. They were made to look at, admire and to keep in curiosity cabinets, or perhaps to entertain ladies or educate children rather than to play with.

Fate Circular Deck

Fate Circular Deck

Circular Spanish-suited playing cards for FATE, 2007

Wüst Oval Patience

Wüst Oval Patience

C. L. Wüst Oval Patience Karten No. 240, beautifully printed by chromolithography, c.1910.

Baraja Edad Media

Baraja Edad Media

Baraja Edad Media, fantasy Spanish-suited medieval playing cards published Mas-Reynals, Barcelona, 1993. Designed by M. Malé and illustrated by V. Maza.

Master of the Banderoles

Master of the Banderoles

Playing Cards by the Master of the Banderoles, one of the earliest professional printmakers, c.1470.

Master PW Circular Cards

Master PW Circular Cards

Master PW Circular Playing Cards: roses, columbines, carnations, parrots and hares... everyday objects evoking life and fertility.

Forster

Forster

Deck made by Johann Jobst Forster, Nürnberg, first half of 18th century in the Paris pattern.