Playing cards arrived in Europe from Asia sometime in the 14th century, and by 1367 they had their first citywide ban in Bern, Switzerland. That their use, and the anxiety about gambling and idleness encouraged by these “picture books of the devil,” had already resulted in anti-gaming ordinances demonstrates how quickly the cards gained popularity in the Middle Ages. Few medieval playing cards survive, as they were tactile objects — shuffled, dealt, and traded until they deteriorated from touch. The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430–1540 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters features rare survivors of this era, including the only known complete set of medieval hand-painted woodcut cards.
“In the late Middle Ages and early modern times, card playing was widely enjoyed at all levels of society, perhaps because it was more challenging than dice and other games of pure chance yet less cerebral than chess,” curator Timothy B. Husband of the museum’s Department of Medieval Art writes in the accompanying catalog from Yale University Press.
Those on view exist because they were made not for play, but as commissioned luxury objects. Hand-painted, decorated with rare pigments and silver and gold, their visuals focused on the monarchy and hunting. The Stuttgart Cards (Upper Rhineland, 1430) feature a 5 of Falcons with five tethered birds of prey, and a 4 of Hounds with four mastiff-like dogs straining at their leashes. The Ambras Courtly Hunt Cards (Upper Rhineland, 1440) have a detailed progression of a hunt, with the falcon that kills the heron, and the hound sent to retrieve the dead bird.
These miniature works of art were much different from common playing cards of the Middle Ages, which were printed with a woodblock and cut from a single page. The World in Play includes an example of a 15th-century uncut sheet of tarot cards from Northern Italy (then used in a trick-taking game rather than divination).
In three pyramidal cases in the Cloister’s stately Romanesque Hall, three hand-painted decks are featured. The centerpiece is The Cloisters Playing Cards (1470–80). The deck is part of the museum’s permanent collection, and the world’s only whole set of medieval illuminated playing cards, although it’s rarely on view with all 52 of its cards. Colored with red ocher, azurite blue, lead-tin yellow, and other medieval pigments, the vibrant oval cards from the Burgundian Netherlands have suits themed to the hunt, with dog collars, hound tethers, hunting horns, and nooses for holding game on your belt. The kings and queens which lead their suits are decked out extravagantly in ermine and jewels, the portraits doubling as a comment on royal excess.
Many of the playing cards have this social commentary aspect, although others are not so subtle. The Playing Cards of Hans Schäufelein (Nuremberg, 1535), created by a worker in Albrecht Dürer’s studio, have a 6 of Leafs with rabbits cooking a hunter, and an 8 of Bells with a woman trying to milk a bull. A similar set — The Playing Cards of Peter Flötner (Nuremberg, 1540) — has more racy humor, like the story of Saint George satirized as a hunchback riding a goat and spearing a pig on the 5 of Acorns; a pregnant woman showing two possible fathers a mirror that reflects them as fools on the 7 of Hearts; and two pigs roasting a mound of feces on the 8 of Acorns representing the moralistic saying: “If the game goes against you / You’ll eat like this.”
“Flötner certainly had in mind the didactic function of playing cards,” Husband writes in the catalogue. “The droll lucidity of his images are pungent reminders that card playing spawns all types of sin: gluttony, drunkenness, lust, greed, and folly. His cards effectively justified the denunciation of the clergy and the proscriptions of the civil authorities (from which the nobility was exempt).”
The games associated with these cards are now lost, but through the imagery this social history survived, both in its chivalry and bawdy humor.
The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430–1540 continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters (99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan) through April 17 .