Knave of Collars, from The Cloisters Playing Cards

South Netherlandish

On view at The Met Cloisters in Gallery 13

The Cloisters set of fifty-two cards constitutes the only known complete deck of illuminated ordinary playing cards (as opposed to tarot cards) from the fifteenth century. There are four suits, each consisting of a king, queen, knave, and ten pip cards. The suit symbols, based on equipment associated with the hunt, are hunting horns, dog collars, hound tethers, and game nooses. The value of the pip cards is indicated by appropriate repetitions of the suit symbol. The figures, which appear to be based on Franco-Flemish models, were drawn in a bold, free, and engaging, if somewhat unrefined, hand. Their exaggerated and sometimes anachronistic costumes suggest a lampoon of extravagant Burgundian court fashions. Although some period card games are named, it is not known how they were played. Almost all card games did, however, involve some form of gambling. The condition of the set indicates that the cards were hardly used, if at all. It is possible that they were conceived as a collector’s curiosity rather than a deck for play.

Knave of Collars, from The Cloisters Playing Cards, Paper (four layers of pasteboard) with pen and ink, opaque paint, glazes, and applied silver and gold, South Netherlandish

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