The World In Play | Catalogue Review

Published by Alison Cross on

The World In Play – catalogue cover

The exhibition, ‘The World in Play – luxury cards 1430-1540’, has now finished its run at The Met. Did you get along there to see the playing cards?  Me neither, but I have procured the next best thing … the exhibition catalogue.

It’s a nice size – nearly 24cm x 21 cm – and 136 pages long.  The book gives us a front row seat into the courtly and common pleasures of European life in the Middle Ages.  The glorious of the hunt to the life of the peasant, all depicted in playing cards.

Author Timothy B Husband, curator in The Met’s department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, leads us on an interesting and scholarly tour of the cards – many replicated in gorgeous full-page, full colour in the catalogue while others are featured as intriguing details.

After a brief, but enlightening, journey into the history of playing cards, the book moves on to explore the hunting motifs and practices of the Stuttgart Cards which date from the 1430s.

Next to be shown is the Courtly Hunt deck once owned by Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria, but which actually dates back to the 1400s.  The suit of herons is particularly charming, I think:

Engraved cards (less expensive than the hand-painted Courtly Hunt or Stuttgard cards) are then explored.  Those created by the unknown geniuses The Master of Playing Cards and the Master ES have suits named after flowers, birds, animals – even helmets!

The Archduke must have had a thing about collecting playing cards because he also owned the Courtly Household cards – my favourite of these luxury cards!  These show all manner of people that would have been familiar at court – a Fool, a Potter (a woman), a Master of the Household etc – and we can glimpse their lives though the cards – their clothing, their surroundings etc.  Here the suits represent countries – Germany, France, Bohemia and Hungary.

Then – joy of joy – we move south, to Italy and onto Tarot cards, namely the Visconti Sforza. As an aside –  I was delighted to see, in Andrea Aste’s new deck, The Book of Shadows Tarot, the reference to the Visconti’s ‘Love’ card in the rendition of his own Lovers card.

Husband then whisks us north again to the Cloisters Playing cards, oval-shaped gems from the Netherlands, dating from about 1475.

Things then change focus and instead of looking at the luxury of the court and princely families, the cards look at peasants – primarily as the wealthy land-owners would see them – in the Nuremberg deck and that by Peter Flotner.  The status quo is wobbling, a burgeoning merchant class is earning cart-loads of money. The changing social situation is reflected in the cards – we see peasants shown largely as bawdy and stupid, indulging in foolish behaviour – there is farting, pooping and all manner of shenanigans.  You couldn’t play cards with your mother, using these decks:

That bull looks FURIOUS

Yes.  A man having a poop!

If you are a UK-based card buff would like to procure yourself a copy of the catalogue, you can do so via Amazon.  Fans in the US can also buy direct from The Met.

And if you like the decks …. please check out Guinivere’s Games for her historic reproductions of three of the decks mentioned in the catalogue. They’re ‘spendy, but gorgeous!

Alison Cross

The Tarot's Court Cards are my specialist area.Β  They talk to me. Not LITERALLY though ....


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