Exhibit :: Playing Cards from the Middle Ages

The only complete set of European hand-painted woodcut playing cards to have survived from the Middle Ages is on view in The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540, at the Cloisters Museum and Gardens. The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to European medieval art and architecture, and was carefully assembled from architectural structures dating from the twelfth through the fifteen century. With over two thousands works in the collection, it is an immersive entrée into an era when kings, queens and knights of olde played cards and game of thrones.

From left: Under Knave of Ducks, King of Falcons, Queen of Stags, from The Stuttgart Playing Cards, ca. 1430. German, Upper Rhineland. Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart
From left: Under Knave of Ducks, King of Falcons, Queen of Stags, from The Stuttgart Playing Cards, ca. 1430. German, Upper Rhineland. Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart

Playing cards originated in China in the ninth century and made their way to Europe by the late fourteenth century. Only three decks of medieval hand-painted playing cards are known to be in existence today. The World in Play features the only complete set, The Cloisters Playing Cards, plus representatives from The Stuttgart Cards and The Ambras Courtly Hunt Cards. All date from the fifteenth century and feature hunting scenes, a popular sport of the nobility.

The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540 is on view at the Cloisters January 20, 2016 through April 17, 2016.