Pocket-sized images of religious figures, known as Holy Cards, first appeared in the 1400s. The earliest known card is from 1423, probably from southern Germany, and depicts Saint Christopher, with hand coloring. These cards, which were created to be carried around or simply displayed in a person’s home, allowed everyday people to bring saints and other religious figures in to their day-to-day lives.
Unlike other sacred imagery at the time, which was expensive and tended to be confined to the wealthy or religious, these cards allowed the average person to establish a personal connection with a saint. The cards were inexpensive and disposable, and their value came more from a person’s connection to the saint and the meaning they imposed on that relationship, rather than from the price of the card itself.
Prior to the emergence of Holy Cards, religious imagery had been out of reach of the majority of devout Catholics, but these cards brought the saints to the people in a tangible way. The common people could obtain a Holy Card and keep it with them. Many Holy Cards would have a picture of a Saint on one side and a prayer on the other side. This way Holy Cards were carried with a person and taken out to pray.
The cards helped the faithful to develop devotions to particular saints, and, due to their popularity, a large industry sprang up for the printing and distribution of the cards. They can be used as devotional aids, and as a portable example of how to model one’s life after that of a particular saint. Although the style of Holy Cards has changed through the years, their purpose—devotional reminder; commemorative memorial; the story of a saint—has not.
The first Holy Cards were a great way to help educate the faithful on different aspects of the Church. They could have a beautiful picture on one side and prayer or Litany on the other side. These were mass-produced and would cost very little. Every priest would bless the cards for their congregation and in return, everyone would carry them and use them.
The printing of holy cards originated with the development of the process of woodcutting, around 1400. These early woodcuts were usually simple religious images with symbols easily recognized by the pilgrims who purchased them. Some of these wood carvings were masterpieces of art themselves. Woodcuts get their name from the way the image is produced: the negative space around the desired image was literally cutaway on a block of wood. This is known as a relief process, as the image sits on the surface, or relief, of the block. Ink is then applied to the raised surface. Once ample pressure is applied, the image is transferred from the block to the paper. In essence, the ink would be applied to the block of wood and then the woodblock would be pressed on paper. The invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century allowed for faster reproduction of woodcut prints. It also allowed for standardization and a uniform process of making the card. The card stock changed as well too. The cards were small enough so they could be carried and large enough so they could be read easily.
As wood carving became less and less popular, many people turned to metals such as copper to make decorative cards. Because of the durability of paper and the need for a great many cards- the paper Holy Card was used and regained its popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the days when Bibles were very hard to get, had to be made by hand, Liturgy Books were next to impossible to get, Holy Cards were relatively easy to reproduce and served an important part in both daily Liturgy (Mass) and daily prayer life. Now, as attendance at Church has fallen, many of the younger generation are not attending Church as regularly as their parents and grandparents did- some may ask: What will happen to Holy Cards?
Holy Cards will be around, they will be collected, and they will be admired. It is an art that we can all share and experience. It is an art that is truly living. It is an art that you can put your hands on without worrying about ruining the art. What is a Holy Card? It is a piece of heaven here on earth. It is a copy of a masterpiece meant for the masses and it helped bring religion to the masses. In an age when things were hard to mass-produce- Holy Cards left their mark.
Today let us honor the place these Holy Cards deserve in our hearts. Go to your Church, ask your priest for some Holy Cards. Take two of each card. Get them all blessed. After the blessing take the cards home. Put one each in a Ziplock Bag and save them. Put the other one in your purse or wallet or put it inside of the front visor on the driver’s side of the car. Take it out every time you start your car. Remember, start your car and start your day with a prayer- how easy is this to do? It is simple and enjoyable. Learn to use your cards and more importantly, learn to enjoy the artwork of the Church along with the rich doctrines of the Church. Holy Cards- a little bit of Heaven here on earth.