Monday, February 18, 2013

Hang holy cards or prayer cards from your Easter tree

      In the Catholic tradition, holy cards or prayer cards are small, devotional pictures mass-produced for the use of the faithful. They typically depict a religious scene or a saint in an image about the size of a playing card. The reverse typically contains a prayer, some of which promise an indulgence for its recitation. The circulation of these cards is an important part of the visual folk culture of Roman Catholics. 
      Old master prints, nearly all on religious subjects, served many of the same functions as holy cards, especially the cheaper woodcuts; the earliest dated surviving example is from 1423, probably from southern Germany, and depicts Saint Christopher, with handcoloring, it is found as part of the binding of a manuscript of the Laus Virginis (1417) which belongs to the John Rylands Library, Manchester. Later engraving or etching were more commonly used. Some had elaborate borders of paper lace surrounding the images; these were called dévotes dentelles in France. 
I hang prayer cards amongst many other lightweight items
from my Easter trees. Poke a tiny holewith a needle at the top
of the card and then string a fine gold thread through it for hanging.
Prayer cards come in infinite variety and either have classic
prayer, poems or scripture printed on the reverse side.
I am relatively selective about the types of messages
printed on the reverse sides of prayer cards because I
am a Protestant. Most of the prayers are common to
Christians of many different denominations and church
histories. I think I purchased these for approx. 50 cents each.
      The invention of color lithography made it possible to reproduce colored images cheaply, leading to a much broader circulation of the cards. An early center of their manufacture was in the environs of the Church of St Sulpice in Paris; the lithographed images made there were done in delicate pastel colors, and proved extremely influential on later designs. Belgium and Germany also became centers of the manufacture of holy cards, as did Italy in the twentieth century. Catholic printing houses (such as Maison de la Bonne Presse in France and Ars Sacra in Germany) produced large numbers of cards, and often a single design was printed by different companies in different countries. 
      Special holy cards are printed for Roman Catholics to be distributed at funerals; these are "In memoriam cards", with details and often a photograph of the person whom they commemorate as well as prayers printed on the back. Other specialized holy cards record baptisms, confirmations, and other religious anniversaries. Others are not customized, and are circulated to promote the veneration of the saints and images they bear. 
A Protestant tract full of beautifully,
elaborate images, not lacking in professional
execution in the least. Visitors here are
more than welcome to print and use this tract, I
have cleaned it for this very purpose.
      At the end of the nineteenth century, some Protestants attempted to answer these Roman Catholic images with similar images of their own. They produced Bible cards or Sunday school cards, with lithographed illustrations depicting Bible stories and parables, more modern scenes of religious life or prayer, or sometimes just a Biblical text illuminated by calligraphy; these were linked to Biblical passages that related to the image. The reverse typically held a sermonette instead of a prayer. Imagery here was always the servant of text, and as such these Protestant cards tended to be replaced by tracts that emphasized message instead of imagery, and were illustrated with cartoon-like images if they were illustrated at all. (This author is a little misinformed about Protestant graphic history. I've include here a entire Protestant religious tract produced during the end of the nineteenth century. The artist was very skilled and the message quite appropriately delivered. cough.)

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