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A Fifteenth Century Flemish Hunting Deck

The Cloisters Flemish Playing cards box

While 15th-century Italian aristocrats were commissioning gilded and hand-painted tarot cards, aristocrats further north were doing the same with regular playing cards. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is offering a facsimile of the only complete playing card deck from the 15th century in existence. This deck is unique for several reasons: it’s Burgundian, it’s the oldest known deck of its type, and it’s oval-shaped.

The Metropolitan Museum acquired this deck from an auction house in the 1980s and renamed it the Cloisters Playing Cards after the medieval branch of the museum. The cards are the original size, 5.5 by 2.75 inches, making it a rather small deck for its time. Each card has a small round Metropolitan Museum stamp on the center back with the catalog number written in pencil. The deck comes with a bilingual booklet (English and German) written by the museum’s curator of medieval art.

Cloisters Flemish playing cardsThe deck was hand painted with the same precious materials used in illuminated manuscripts: crushed lapis lazuli, azurite and red ocher. Gold leaf details made this a truly luxurious deck. It’s comprised of four suits numbered 1 through 10 with three court cards: King, Queen, and Page. The suit symbols are items necessary for hunting with dogs: horns for signaling, tethers for restraining the dogs, nooses for suspending birds or small game from one’s belt, and extra-wide collars to protect the dog’s throat from the prey he’s bringing down.

The court cards were drawn freehand in pen and ink then hand-painted. It’s possible the cards were commissioned by a wealthy merchant to satirize the extreme fashions of the Burgundian court. Two fashion victims are shown below with the 3 of Collars between them. The King’s floor length drooping sleeves would have been a nuisance to deal with. The long sleeves of the outer robe were usually tied together in the back to keep them out of the way. The Queen is wearing a tall hennin with a long, gauzy veil trailing behind. This headgear often reached ridiculous proportions resembling tall, pointed witch’s hats that made it a challenge to walk through doorways.

This deck was included in the exhibit of medieval playing cards at the Cloisters in early 2016. The catalog for this exhibit, The World in Play, has the same information as the booklet accompanying this deck, as well as large color versions of the tiny, black and white illustrations in the booklet. Guinevere’s Games used to sell this deck, along with two other hand-painted decks from about the same time period; but this deck has been removed from their website. All three decks were printed by Piatnik in the 1970s, so it seems this is a Piatnik reprint.

The box housing the deck and booklet is sturdy, deep red, with embossed gold lettering and two cards pasted to the top.

Cloisters Flemish playing cards court cardsAdvice for the cautious consumer: First, get the World in Play catalog from the Metropolitan Museum. It’s beautiful, loaded with card images, and gives a thorough education in fifteenth-century playing cards. Check out the Courtly Hunting deck on page 26, the Courtly Household deck on page 49, and the Cloisters/Flemish Hunting deck on page 80. If you want an actual deck, purchase the first two from Guinevere’s Games and the last-mentioned from the museum.

All the links you need:

The catalog at the Met Museum store

The Cloisters Hunting deck at the Met Museum store

Guinevere’s Games

My review of the decks offered by Guinevere’s Games

My review of the Metropolitan’s exhibit and catalog

See more images of these cards and links to high resolution images at

The Inglewood Hunting Deck created in the style of the 15th century decks


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