Fifteenth-Century Playing Cards from Guinevere’s Games
In the fifteenth century, playing cards were a novelty. Italian aristocrats commissioned hand painted, gilded trionfi decks from their favorite artists, while their counterparts farther north were doing the same with one-of-a-kind playing card decks.
Guinevere’s Games offers four fifteenth-century playing card decks through Gamecrafters. Three of these decks were hand painted luxury items, while the fourth is a basic black and white deck. These are not collectible facsimiles. They are printed in rich colors on smooth paper and could be easily shuffled and used for game playing. Each deck is housed in a tin and accompanied by background information. Here are details on each deck.
The first two decks described below were discovered in the castle of Ambras at Innsbruck, Germany in the 16th century.
Ambras Court Playing Cards (Hofamterspiel) 1455/60, German
The deck has four suits numbered 1 to 10 in Roman numerals, with two court cards – King and Queen. The suits are distinguished by the arms of four countries: Bohemia (white lion on red), Germany (black eagle), France (fleur de lys), and Hungary (horizontal red and white stripes). Each card depicts an occupation that would support a noble household like Barber, Chaplain and Falconer. The occupation is hand lettered on the cards in German gothic script. The first card in each suit is a Jester. The original deck is hand-colored woodcut, but the work is so fine the cards look like miniature paintings.
Cards illustrated here: One (Jester) from the suit of Germany and Six (Harpist) from the suit of France.
The dimensions are 2.5 inches wide x 3.5 inches tall. The backs are solid gray with a trademark name at the bottom right. The enclosed booklet gives instructions for playing a game with the cards, along with a color thumbnail of each card and its name.
In 1975, Piatnick printed a facsimile edition of 1,000, with a booklet written by four playing card experts including Sir Michael Dummett.
Ambras Court Hunting Deck (Hofjagdspiel), 1440/1445, Swiss; now in the Vienna Museum of Art History
Hunting must have been a popular theme for playing cards as several decks with this theme still exist. This deck, illustrating heron hunting, is attributed to the workshop of Konrad Witz of Basle. The cards were not block printed, like most tarot and playing card decks at that time. The images were drawn with pen and ink then painted.
The deck has four suits: white hounds, white herons, white falcons and brown lures. The ten suit cards do not have numbers. The “tens” are illustrated with a flag containing the suit symbol.
The deck has four court cards: king and queen on a gold background and two knights or knaves on a colored background. The court cards are not labeled, and all court figures are mounted. The court cards of each suit have different colored robes and hold their suit symbol. Playing card decks usually had three court cards in a suit; but having four, as in a trionfi pack, is not unheard of.
Illustrated here: Three of Hounds and King of Herons.
These cards have the same size and appearance as the Ambras Court deck described above. The backs are red. This deck does not come with any explanatory material. According to an online source, two cards are missing. If someone at Guinevere’s Games recreated them, they did an excellent job, as I couldn’t tell the difference.
About 10 minutes into the first episode of Showtime’s The Borgias, there’s a scene where the Borgia Pope’s mistress, the teenage Lucrezia Borgia, and a young boy play cards in a sunny courtyard. The camera focuses on the boy’s hand long enough to see the cards clearly. He’s playing with a large version of this deck, about the size of the original Visconti-Sforza cards. His hand contains: the 6 and 10 of Lures, King of Herons and a Queen whose suit is hard to determine.
Flemish Playing Cards (Flemish Hunting Deck) 1470 – 1480, Burgundy area, Metropolitan Museum of Art
These tall, oval cards are hand painted with gold and silver embellishments. The cards are in excellent condition, evidently seldom handled and certainly not used for game playing.
Suit symbols are equipment related to hunting: Tethers, Nooses, Horns, and Dog Collars. It’s interesting that two of the suits have red suit symbols and two have dark blue. This may be an early example of dividing the suits between red and black. It’s believed stencils were used to ensure uniformity of suit symbols.
The three court figures, King, Queen, and Knave, stand in three-quarter profile holding their suit symbol. They are fashionably dressed in the style popular at the court of the Burgundian Dukes in the late 15th century.
Illustrated: Six of Hunting Horns and King of Nooses.
The cards are 2.75 x 5.5 inches. The backs are the same tan color as the front background. The deck comes with one sheet of paper giving background information and explaining the suit symbols. Piatnik printed a facsimile edition in 1974 with a descriptive booklet.
Moorish Playing Cards
Simon Wintle, owner of World of Playing Cards website referenced below, found two uncut sheets of cards being used to stiffen the covers of a fifteenth-century book in a museum in Barcelona, Spain. As cards have been recorded in Spain as early as 1414, these cards may be the oldest known playing cards in Europe. They seem to be a link between the Mamluk cards introduced to Europe by Arab sailors in the 14th century, and the standard Spanish and Italian decks that emerged over the 15th century.
The suits are: Coins, Cups, Swords, and something curved that may be a scimitar or some kind of baton with a knot in the middle. The deck has three court cards in each suit: a seated king, standing knave, and mounted knight.
Illustrated here: Five of Cups and Knave of Batons.
The cards are 4.5 x 2.5 inches and retain the sharp corners of the original. They are printed on smooth, heavy, uncoated card stock to replicate the feel of the originals as much as possible. The backs are the plain cream color of the card stock.
References and Links
www.GuineveresGames.CA makers of card and board games from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance.
TarotWheel.net has more images from the Ambras Court and the oval Flemish deck as well as the Stuttgart hunting deck which is very similar to the Ambras Hunting deck. This site has links to high resolution scans of each deck.
Simon Wintle’s website www.wopc.co.uk is a huge resource for historic playing and tarot cards.
Clear the Decks: Newsletter of the American Playing Card Collector’s Club. June 2015. Hofamterspiel Playing Cards @1460 by Rod Starling.
Very lovely diagram of the earliest suit symbols in different countries.
I just noticed that the Flemish Hunting deck is no longer listed on their website. But the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is selling the deck along with a booklet housed in a very nice box.
That knave of batons is from a recreation deck produced by Jeanette Dunnet. The two surviving sheets of the Wintle/Barcelona deck do not have any court cards.
John, thanks so much for clarifying that. I didn’t realize the court cards were modern replacements.