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Set of Fifty-Two Playing Cards

ca. 1470–80
South Netherlandish
Pasteboard with pen and ink, tempera, applied gold and silver
Each approx.: 5 3/8 x 2 3/4 in. (13.7 x 7 cm)
Credit Line:
The Cloisters Collection, 1983
Accession Number:
  • Description

    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. The are four suits, each consisting of a king, a queen, a 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 with 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 as a deck for play.
    The playing cards are exhibited on a rotating basis.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Marking: Two watermarks appear in the paper of these cards. One is in the form of a fork-tailed Gothic letter "p" surmounted by a quatrefoil and appears at least in part, on the 2 of Nooses, the 2 of Dog Collars and the queen of Horns. The other is a shield with the letters "iado" surmounted by a crozier which appears, at least in part, on the 1,5,8 and 10 of Dog Collars, the 1,2 and knave of Nooses and the 8 of Horns. The first watermark closely resembles Briquet 8684 and 8686, used mostly in eastern France and Flanders between ca. 1464 and 1480. The second watermark is Briquet 1876, used in southern Flanders and the north Lowlands between ca. 1468 and 1479.

  • Provenance

    Hôtel Drouot , Paris (December 12, 1978, lot 50) ; Sotheby's, London (December 6, 1983, lot 70)

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History