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The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430–1540

The World in Play: Luxury Playing Cards, 1430-1540

January 20–April 17, 2016

Exhibition Location: Romanesque Hall, Gallery 001, The Cloisters
Press Preview: Tuesday, January 19, 10:00 a.m.–noon


Only three decks of European hand-painted playing cards are known to have survived from the late Middle Ages—two made in Germany and one in the Burgundian Netherlands, all dating from the early to late 15th century. The only complete set of these luxury cards—The Cloisters Playing Cards, from the southern Netherlands—and representative examples from the other two decks are featured in the exhibition The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430–1540, which opened January 20 at The Cloisters.

The exhibition is made possible by the Michel David-Weill Fund.

The earliest surviving deck of hand-painted woodcut cards—and the finest example of such work from the German Renaissance—are also included in the exhibition, where contextual background is provided by 15th-century engraved and woodcut playing cards from Germany and tarot cards from North Italy. Among the works on view are examples by the Basel painter Konrad Witz (1400–1445) and two other artists of the period who were known as Master E. S. and Master of the Playing Cards.

The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe.

Card games originated in China in the ninth century and were later taken up in India and the Middle East. Playing cards first appeared in Europe around the late 14th century, probably through trade. Because card games often involved gambling, clerical and civilian authorities in Europe banned cards. Early European decks were not standardized and featured diverse suit pictures as well as variety in the number of suits and the number of cards.

Exhibition Overview

The three hand-painted decks represented in the exhibition—the Stuttgart Cards (ca. 1430), the Ambras Courtly Hunt Cards (ca. 1440), and The Cloisters Playing Cards (ca. 1470–80)—were made over a span of some 50 years by different artists in different locations. Although each of these decks is unique, all feature images related to hunting, a favorite leisure activity of medieval nobility. The high quality of the paintings and excellent condition of the cards suggest that the luxury sets were never played. Rather, they may have served as engaging collectors’ items, like portfolios of prints or drawings, for the private enjoyment of their owners.

Representing the earliest known deck of cards is the incomplete Stuttgart Cards (12 of the 49 remaining cards in this deck are on view at The Cloisters). Although the theme is the hunt, no actual hunt is shown. Rather, the imagery of the Stuttgart Cards serves as a metaphor for the patron’s view of the world, evoking a chivalric past in which man exists in harmony with nature. The deck’s four suits are falcons, hounds, ducks, and stags.

On the basis of overall style and the treatment of landscapes, the Ambras Courtly Hunt Cards are attributed to the workshop of the noted German painter Konrad Witz. The suits are lures, falcons, herons, and hounds. Six cards from this deck are displayed.

The Cloisters Playing Cards are the earliest complete set of cards, and are among the more intriguing works of secular art in the collection of The Cloisters. The exhibition marks the first time that all 52 cards are displayed at The Cloisters at the same time. (Because works on paper are sensitive to light, normally only a small number of the cards have been shown at one time.) The suits in The Cloisters deck are nooses, collars, leashes, and hunting horns.

Six examples from the 16th-century Courtly Household cards—the earliest deck of printed cards—provide a fascinating glimpse into the organization of a late medieval princely court. The four suits correspond to the kingdoms of Germany, France, Bohemia, and Hungary. The hand-colored cards in this set are embellished in silver and gold leaf and represent the varied ranks at court: king, queen, marshal, chaplain, physician, chancellor, court mistress, barber, herald, fishmonger, and fool. Some occupations are depicted in all four suits, others appear only once. The deck represents some of the earliest German woodblock prints in existence.

A later set of woodblock printed cards from Nuremburg around 1540, by German sculptor, designer, and printmaker Peter Flötner, is distinguished by the musical notations that appear on the back of each card. The cards from this deck—all of which are shown in the exhibition—are hand colored, with silver and gold embellishments. The suit pictures—acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells—had by this time become standard in Germany.

Publication and Related Programs

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated book intended for general audiences. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, it is available in the Museum’s book shops (paperback, $25.00).

The catalogue is made possible by the Michel David-Weill Fund.

A weekly blog on the Museum’s website will examine such topics as playing cards in the Metropolitan’s collection, imagery, and depictions of costume.

Games in the Middle Ages will be the theme of a Family Day program (Sunday, February 14, 11:00 a.m.-3 p.m.) featuring a demonstration of how playing cards were painted and printed, tables for playing chess, instructors who will lead children’s games as depicted in Bruegel’s painting Children’s Games (1560), and gallery workshops.

Topics relevant to the exhibition will be explored in a series of four gallery talks: “Medieval Art from the Holy Roman Empire” (Saturday, February 7); “Materials and Techniques of Medieval Art” (Saturday, February 13); “Courtly Pleasures and Pastimes” (Saturday, February 20); and “The Art of Playing Cards” (Saturday, March 5). Gallery talks take place at 12 and 2 p.m. and are free with Museum admission.

Two concerts have been organized to complement the exhibition. Pomerium will perform Musical Games, Puzzles, and Riddles of the Renaissance (Sunday, February 21, at 1 and 3 p.m.; $40) and Galileo’s Daughters and The Cat’s Paw will present CARMINA! Vocal and Instrumental Song at the Dawn of the Renaissance (Sunday, March 6, at 1 and 3 p.m.; $40).

The exhibition was organized by Timothy B. Husband, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. Exhibition design is by Michael Langley, Exhibition Design Manager; graphics are by Chelsea Amato, Graphic Designer; and lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers, all of the Museum’s Design Department.

The exhibition is featured on the Museum’s website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter via the hashtag #MetLuxuryCards.

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January 20, 2016


Image: Under Knave of Ducks, King of Falcons, and Queen of Stags from The Stuttgart Playing Cards. German, Upper Rhineland, ca. 1430. Paper (pasteboard) with gold ground and opaque paint over pen and ink. Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart © Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart, photos: H. Zwietasch

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