I’ve long been fascinated with playing cards of all types, and as you know, have created a game with reproductions of art historical masterpieces as part of Artventures!™ Game. So as soon as I could, I ventured to the glorious Cloisters in upper, upper Manhattan (I even drove!) to see the current exhibit, “The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1450-1540.”
It is an inspired exhibit of precious works of art in miniature. Do go, if you can, and revel in the elegance of the place, which will calm your soul, and the preciousness of this exhibit.
Precious, yes. Likely no one played with these cards.
Polite? Not always. One of the decks on display is wildly scatalogical–referencing unsavories by humans and, ahem, pigs (associated with gluttony and lust). These cards seem meant to irritate the morally upright.
No wonder playing cards was, ahem, frowned upon by the Church and government leaders. They really didn’t like card playing, associating it with various vices, including gambling. By the way, this tisk-tisking didn’t start with Christianity. Apparently, ancient Roman men loved to gamble with dice, although it was a no-no, too.
With something so morally questionable, can there be great art? You bet! Like any great art, the images give us a window into the world of the time.
Playing cards emerged in the mid-14th century, originating in the Near East, as a less-heady alternative to the also-popular chess. They could be mass-produced on sheets, using the latest technology of wood block printing or stamping, keeping costs down. The individual cards were then cut off the sheet and glued to multiple layers of paper to make the stiffer playing card. Ordinary playing cards in use wouldn’t last very long.
Not like these treasures.
The Stuttgart Playing Cards from about 1430 are hand painted on a gold (yes, really) background. They are also huge–about 7 1/2″ x 4 3/4″ each. Rather than the standard playing cards we know, the suits show the importance of the hunt, with the suit of Hounds, Stags, Ducks, and Falcons.
They are show-stoppingly beautiful.
I also love the elegant hounds and herons of the Courtly Hunt Deck from 1440-5. They seem inspired by an Asian aesthetic. Delicate and dreamy.
A bit of trivia. Tarot cards were not used for foretelling the future until the 19th century. The decks called tarot here are playing cards for a rather complex, trick-taking game. They originated in Northern Italy, with the suits of Swords, Batons, Cups, and Coins, just like modern tarot decks with swords, wands, cups, and pentacles.
I lusted after the Visconti-Sforza Tarot. They are almost painfully exquisite, with the gold leaf and raised stamping.
Be still my heart! One more…
This last a scene of lovers, with the little dog representing loyalty and faithfulness. Traditional, symbolic representations found in paintings of the time.
In contrast, there’s that naughty deck by Peter Flotner, with the suits of Bells, Acorns, Leafs, and Hearts. Which seems so civilized. But this post-Reformation German deck. Whoa! What a different world view.
The lower the number of the suit, the coarser and cruder it is. The 4 of Bells, a woman flogs the bare bottom of a man. Nothing beautiful here. But a fascinating glimpse into a different mindset–of bawdy moralizing, erotica, and ‘humorous’, scatalogical images of peasant life–those pigs and more…representing the artist’s attitudes toward flawed humanity.
Me? I prefer the elegant, courtly view of human experience. Why not opt for beauty?