The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540 – The Cloisters NY

The World in Play Poster The Met NY

Luxury Playing cards, Clockwise, from top left: Under Knave of Ducks, King of Falcons, Queen of Stags, Five of Stags, Under Dame of Stags, Banner (Ten) of Hounds, Queen of Hounds, Seven of Hounds, King of Ducks, from The Stuttgart Playing Cards, ca. 1430. German, Upper Rhineland. Paper (pasteboard) with gold ground and opaque paint over pen and ink. Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

Have always wanted to visit The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art entirely dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe and located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River in New York.

It has impressive holdings of European medieval works of art such as tapestries, stained-glass windows, and column capitals.

The Cloisters contains approximately two thousand works of art from medieval Europe, largely dating from the twelfth – fifteenth century, including exquisite illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, ivories, and tapestries.

Among its masterpieces is the original copy of The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry; an early fifteenth-century French illuminated book of hours.

Three of the reconstructed Cloisters feature gardens are planted according to horticultural information found in medieval treatises and poetry, garden documents and herbals.

It was with interest that I learned recently of a rather unique exhibition, which will be on show at The Cloisters January 20 – April 17, 2016, The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540.

Card games reached Europe around the middle of the fourteenth century, via the Mameluke Empire of Egypt, despite having been invented by the Chinese during the ninth century.

Through trade, playing cards had already spread to India and the Middle East and featured an impressive variety of images for the suits.

As a child I was always fascinated with card games, which was a lot to do with the imagery, as well as the mathematics involved.

Stuttgarter Kartenspiel, um 1430, ca. 19,1 x 12,1 cm

Queen of Stags from The Stuttgart Playing Cards (Das Stuttgarter Kartenspiel), German, Upper Rhineland, ca. 1430, Paper (six layers in pasteboard) with gold ground and opaque paint over pen and ink, 7 ½ × 4 ¾ in. (19.1 × 12.1 cm), Landesmuseum Wurttemberg, Stuttgart (KK grau 15) Image: © Landesmuseum Wurtttemberg, Stuttgart, photos: H. Zwietasch

My father was both a fan and a great proficient and taught my brother and I to play.

Only three decks of European hand-painted playing cards are known to have survived from the late Middle Ages, two that were made in Germany, one in the Burgundian Netherlands.

All dating to the late 15th century, the packs of cards are known as the Stuttgart Cards (ca. 1430), Ambras Courtly Hunt Cards (ca. 1440), and The Cloisters Playing Cards (ca. 1470–80).

Different artists in different locations made them over a span of some 50 years.

The imagery of the Stuttgart Cards refers to the medieval hunt, even if it is not shown. They serve as a metaphor for the patron’s view of the world, evoking a chivalric past in which man was believed to have existed in harmony with nature.

The deck’s four suits are falcons, hounds, ducks, and stags.

The Ambras Courtly Hunt Cards are attributed to the workshop of a noted German painter Konrad Witz and have suits that include lures, falcons, herons, and hounds. Six cards from this deck will be displayed.

The Cloisters Playing Cards, the earliest complete set of cards, are among the more intriguing works of secular art in the collection of The Cloisters.

The suits in The Cloisters deck are nooses, collars, leashes, and hunting horns and the exhibition marks the first time all 52 cards have been displayed at the same time.

Cards 2

Leafs from The Playing Cards of Peter Flötner and King of Bells Peter Flötner (German, Thurgau 1485–1546 Nuremberg) Published by Hans Christoph Zell, German, Nuremberg, ca. 1540, Woodcut on paper with watercolor, opaque paint, and gold, 4 ? × 2 ? in. (10.5 × 5.9 cm) Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (GMN Sp 7418 1–47 Kapsel 516) Image: © Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, photo: Monika Runge

Works on paper have difficulties for display in that they are sensitive to light.

Normally only a small number of the cards have been shown at one time.

Six examples from the 16th-century Courtly Household cards, the earliest deck of printed cards will 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.

Hand-coloured the cards are embellished in silver and gold leaf, representing the varied ranks at court: king, queen, marshal, chaplain, physician, chancellor, court mistress, barber, herald, fishmonger, and the 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.

Playing Chess Stained Glass

Stained glass of Chess Players from the Hotel de la Bessée (Villefranche sur Saône) (1430-1440) ‘The game of chess as a metaphor for love ritual, permeates the culture of the late Middle Ages in literature as in the figurative arts.

Organized by Timothy B. Husband, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloister, a wealth of events will accompany the show, including Musical Games, Puzzles, Riddles, and Vocal and Instrumental song at the Dawn of the Renaissance.

The Family Day program on Sunday, February 14, 11:00 a.m.-3 p.m. will feature a demonstration of how playing cards were painted and printed and include tables for playing chess, another popular game in the Middle Ages. Instructors will be leading the children’s games as depicted in Brueghel’s painting Children’s Games (1560).

Gallery talks will take place at 12 noon and 2 p.m. and are free with Museum admission.


Illustration from Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry = a book of painted prayers

The Middle Ages, at least on the surface, seems to have had it all.

Fire breathing dragons, Knights on Crusade, handsome Knights rescuing fair maidens, courtly love and merchants at Venice and Padua involved in family feuds and matters of the heart.

In medieval art everything stood for something else in an elaborate symbolic code familiar to all onlookers; animals and plants contained distinctive moral messages for humans.

As we would expect the Lion was King of beasts; strong, courageous and faithful, while that unique creature known as the Unicorn had a single phallic like horn.

He was savage, loyal and emblematic of Jesus Christ, pure and invincible.

Being white he was also a symbol of worldly enticement, exciting hope or desire, meant to lure, attract and tempt.

As time went on the Unicorn also became associated with the Virgin Mary, who was able to resist the weaknesses of the flesh.

She set a great example for ‘chaste’ high-born women locked up in their chastity belts while their men were away on Crusade, at war, or going about their monarch’s business.

Playing Cards Met NY

L to R, Knave o Cups from The Visconti Tarot, World from The Viscont Tarot – Workshop of Bonifacio Bembo Image:s © Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven; Knave of Horns from The Cloisters Playing Cards, Queen of Nooses from The Cloisters Playing Cards, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

They must have been glad they had card games at least, to while away what must have seemed like endless time.

A set of woodblock printed cards from Nuremburg produced by German sculptor, designer, and printmaker Peter Flötner around 1540 are distinguished by the musical notations on the back of each card.

The cards from this deck—all of which will be 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.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

World in Play

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

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The World in Play:
Luxury Cards 1430-1540

The Cloisters
January 20–April 17, 2016

Exhibition Location:
Romanesque Hall, Gallery 001, The Cloisters

There will be 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);
“The Art of Playing Cards” (Saturday, March 5).

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