Pale wings extended, a giant, auburn-haired angel in a heavenly frock outstretches her hands in a gesture of protection, covertly guiding a pair of children over the jeopardous-looking planks of a wooden bridge.
Growing up in a Christian household, I started accumulating holy cards at an early age. Birthdays, baptisms, Christmas, Easter... all were occasions to trade and gift new cards featuring religious figures or Christian-related scenes, prayers printed in script lettering on the reverse.
The holy card I remember most clearly was the popular rendering of two bare-footed children navigating a rickety bridge under the watch of a large, placid-faced angel materializing from water flowing below. As a frequent and treacherous trope in pop culture, my young self identified with the precarious situation on the broken bridge. And although I found the guardianship of an angel a little dubious, I was also interested in aviation, so the idea of a human-bird hybrid appealed to my imagination. I kept the card by my bed.
The origins of the holy card may be traced back to the small illustrations paired with illuminated manuscripts and books. Greater demand for handmade books in the 13th century meant that crucial materials like vellum were in short supply, so large folios were downsized to booklets. To save space, abbreviated writing increased, handwriting size was reduced and illustrations were made smaller. But despite this miniaturization, illustrations retained their detail and beauty - with skilled artists making precision strokes and crafting backgrounds awash with colour and bold contrasts of gold.
Many old master prints may also be considered a predecessor to the holy card in terms of production, size and cost. Found inside the lower cover of an early 15th-century copy of Konrad von Haimburg’s Laus Mariae, a 288 mm x 207 mm woodcut dated from at least 1423 has been traced to southern Germany and depicts a hand-coloured St. Christopher carrying an infant Jesus . This example also stands as the earliest known woodcut on record, a valuable marker for a critical artistic specialization.
In the 15th century, the evolution of the holy card continued to surface as a mark of significant points in technology, society and visual art. The invention and spread of the printing press and refined paper-making processes enabled the mass production of books, increasing the dissemination of information across Europe. The revolution of higher-quality printed material is reflected in the manufacture of holy cards, which expanded on the miniaturized dimensions of illuminated manuscript illustrations and enabled many to carry around economical, pocket-sized effigies of religious figures or display them in the home.
Before the printing press and refined paper making processes, only royalty, the wealthy or high-ranking clergy could regularly access the majority of religious art and literature. The production of holy cards with the printing press allowed everyday citizens to make closer associations with their religious figures. In addition, before the 18th century, most people in Medieval Europe were predominantly illiterate. Because of this, figurative holy cards became a way for many to embrace their faith despite their literacy level. The circulation of these cards became a means for the clergy to cultivate a concrete delineation of worship, offering a visual grasp on traditional Christian figures of note. These cards became a popular symbol of faith, a reminder of devotion and likely a source of comfort or moral guidance to many.
Chromolithography or colour lithography came into commercial use in 1860. This invention made it possible to reproduce coloured images cheaply, leading to a wider circulation of colour holy cards. In the 1870s, Bouasse-Lebel and Bouasse-Jeune, rival French publishers of religious images, both became known for their intricate designs, symbolic artwork and innovative use of chromolithographic printing technologies . Distributing large volumes of holy cards, Bouasse-Lebel earned a papal commendation in 1871 and both printers produced cards with unique lace-like edging that continues to be sought after by collectors today.
The Head of Christ (1940) by American artist Warner Sallman is a famed devotional motif of Jesus, popularized in part by its feature on modern holy cards. During World War II, The YMCA and Salvation Army distributed millions of cards featuring the painting to the American armed forces. After the war, the cards continued to be handed out, and the image shaped the visualization of Jesus for millions of people worldwide .
Following World War II, interest in religious materials began to decline. With several major holy card manufacturers dropping out of production, cards from this era often depict less intricate artwork or employ photography to convey Christian iconography . However, some companies like Fratelli Bonella, a publisher of Catholic devotional materials, formed in the 1930s and have become a leading producer of modern-day holy cards.
Small, inexpensive and easily stored, holy card collecting spread from Catholic circles to other branches of Christianity and on to many outside the church. While pre-blessed cards paired with a certificate of authenticity can be purchased, more accessible cards can be found in op-shops, on eBay or in church stores. The Marian Library at the University of Dayton boasts one of the world's largest collections of holy cards with over 18,000 dating from c.1675 through to the present day.
Holy cards are a quirky blend of religion and art. Iconic holy card depictions of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and various saints and angels have become an accepted visual standard for religious characters within Christian canons. While many faithful use the small cards as a devotional tool or as gifts for significant religious occasions, others collect them based on aesthetic quality, a tribute to a history of elaborate artistic traditions and fundamental printing technologies.
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