Before Rob Sacchetto’s zombie deck, before the talented designers of Kickstarter decks, before Russell and Morgan shook hands to seal the deal, even before four suits and historic court cards—there was the Master of Playing Cards.
Almost 600 years later, and we still can’t say for sure who this guy was. The facts are certain about this, though: he’s the one who decided artistic integrity was an important component of printing playing cards. The Master and his pupils worked from the 1430s to the 1450s in southwestern Germany, and he’s the first one to use woodcuts and engravings like a star.
At the time, most card artists weren’t artists at all; they were engravers, usually used to working with gold. Their cuttings on wood were clunky, with the stilted style of not quite Renaissance abundant throughout. The Master, however, had training as an actual artist—specifically, drawing. Vertical lines, three dimensions, and realistic shading were still relatively new concepts that artists, not engravers, tended to employ. He took those skills and applied them to woodcuts and engravings, using individual woodcuts held together in a frame to make each card, much like the movable type of Gutenberg’s printing press.
Each of those individual woodcuts was a single pip. Instead of today’s iconic four suits, the Germanic cards of the late middle ages still had five suits. That is, flowers, deer, birds, beasts, and wild men—and the pips on each card were actually the animals in the suit (see the images above). Drawing each by hand would have made card production a painstaking task, not to mention utterly unaffordable for anyone outside the aristocracy.
Thus, the Master of Playing Cards was the first innovator in playing cards, the first to focus on artistic integrity in their printing. Where would we be without this unknown, often unsung hero?