Tuesday, January 19, 2016

THE WORLD at PLAY: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540 at the Cloisters: Review by Polly Guerin

A Flemish Hunting Deck
Medieval playing cards with their enchanting and captivating imagery give us reason to realize the rich source of entertainment that so engaged the people of the late Middle Ages.  The cards so richly embellished in hand-applied color provide insight into the opulent costumes, princely hunts, and the cast of characters, ranging from royals to mere commoners, who were memorialized in these unique cards that provide such a joyful viewing for us today.
     The exhibition The World at Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540, opens this Wednesday, January 20th at the Cloisters, Romanesque Hall, Gallery 001 with more than 100 intricately hand-painted playing cards created for the wealthy individuals of the Middle Ages.
      Imagine this: Only two decks of European hand-painted playing cards have survived from the late Middle Ages---two made in Germany and one in the Burgundian Netherlands, all dating from the late 15th century. The only complete set of these luxury cards---the Cloisters Play Cards, from the Southern Netherlands---and representative examples from the other decks are featured in the exhibition.
Left:The Knave of Nooses 
Why are these cards so important? It is a rare opportunity to see these unique works of art that reflect a period of tumultuous social, artistic, economic and religious change.  Hunting, chivalry, and life at court are referenced in the cards, which originated in southern and southwestern Germany and in the Upper Rhineland. Suits include falcons, ducks, and stags, nooses, collars, leashes, and hunting horns, parrots, rosses and pinks (a flower, Bohemia, France, Germany, and Hungary and others. 

The earliest surviving deck of hand-painted woodcut cards---and the finest examples of such work from the German Renaissance---are also included in the exhibition, where contextural background provided by 15th-century engraved and wood cut play cards from Germany and tarot cards from North Italy. among the works on view are examples by the Basel painter Konrad Witz (1400-1445) and two other artists of the period who were known as Master E.S. and Master of the Playing Cards.
The Lvishly illustrated book
On the basis of overall style and the treatment of landscapes, the Ambras Courtly Hunt Cards 

are attributed to the workshop of noted German painter, Konrad Witz, the suits are lures, falcons, herons, and hounds.  Six cards from the deck are on display. A later set of woodblock printed cards from Nuremburg around 1540, by German sculptor, designer and print maker Peter Flotner are quite handsomely distinguished by the musical notations that appear on the back of each card, hand coloured, with silver and good embellishments. The suit pictures--acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells had become standard in Germany.
     The exhbition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated book, The World at Play: Luxury Cards
1430-1540 features the most important luxury decks of hand-painted European playing cards to have survived from the Middle Ages; plus a selection of exceptional hand-colored woodblock cards, engraved cards, and tarot packs. Each of these cards has a story to tell; collectively, they conjure up the courtly culture and customs of the day, and chart the transition from late medieval to early modern Europe. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, Available in the Museum's book shop (paperback, $25). A weekly blog on the Museum's website (www.metmuseum.org).
     Ta Ta darlings!!! It's worth a trip to the Cloisters to see these engaging luuxry playing cards, not only for their historical value, but for the insight that they provide in the lifestyle and entertainments of the wealthy patrons of the Middle Ages. Fan mail welcome send your comments to  pollytalknyc@gmail.com or visit her Blogs on www.pollytalk.com which are listed with links in the left hand column on her home page.

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