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 of the Playing Cards

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

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

avatar

By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

View Articles

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

Recommended

Luxury Collectable Decks

Luxury Collectable Decks

Luxury packs of cards have been produced since the 15th century, a trend that is very popular among collectors today.

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.

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.

Geschichte des Buchgewerbes

Geschichte des Buchgewerbes

Geschichte des Buchgewerbes illustrated by Ludwig Winkler, published by Verlag für Lehrmittel Pößneck.

Toledo, 1584

Toledo, 1584

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

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.

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),

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.

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.

Corner Indices

Corner Indices

Corner Indices were a major innovation in playing card production.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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

Estate Playing Cards

Estate Playing Cards

Estate Playing Cards with five suits designed by Keith Wilson

Five Suit Bridge

Five Suit Bridge

Five Suit Bridge was invented in Vienna in 1937 by Walter W. Marseille and Dr. Paul Stern.

Johannes Müller c.1840

Johannes Müller c.1840

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

Pedro Varangot, 1786

Pedro Varangot, 1786

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

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.