Holy Cards - An Enduring Tradition


Holy Cards – An Important and Enduring Catholic Tradition

Holy cards: you see them everywhere, attractive cards, not much larger than a standard playing card, imprinted with various Catholic images or saints. You may be aware that Aquinas and More carries the largest selection of holy cards anywhere on the web. But do you know the history and significance of these prayer cards? There is an old saying that a picture is worth 1,000 words. In a sense, this thought is behind the holy card. Holy cards endeavor to tell a story – the life of a saint, the significance of an apparition, the striking nature of a Catholic mystery – with a beautiful picture.
Inspired by stunning paintings of Jesus and the saints, the first holy cards appeared early in the 15th century. They were portable woodcut prints that provided those who could not afford to own custom artwork a way to have their own image of their patron saint. In those times, it was considered very important to have an image of one’s patron saint. As time passed, a new type of holy card became popular. These holy cards were typically handmade with black ink-etched portraits on parchment and were often decorated around the edge with a bit of lace or ribbon, or stuck onto a backing of lace. Our modern day valentines are descendants of these elegant little cards.
In 1796, the process of lithography was invented, enabling the mass production of holy cards; in Switzerland, the Benziger brothers established the first major holy card printing business using the process. When chromolithography was invented, it allowed for the cards to be printed in color. In the 19th century, more and more companies printing prayer cards were established, and cards reflected the art methods and trends of the areas where they were created. Modern holy cards don’t seem to have as much variety in artistic style as in the 19th century when many more companies were producing cards, but there are hundreds of different saints and images of Mary and Jesus available. Commonly the back of the holy cards include a prayer or sometimes a short biography of the saint.
Images and Symbols
While some holy cards simply feature an image of the saint, similar to a portrait, most prayer cards – and especially older cards, or cards based on older images – will also include various symbols associated with the saints. Some are quite simple to understand – St. Veronica holds the holy napkin with Christ’s face on it, there are usually snakes at St. Patrick’s feet, St. Michael is typically depicted crushing Satan beneath his feet. Some of the older cards – and still many today – include more subtle symbols to help tell the story of the saint. A card may depict such things as a palm to represent martyrdom, a quill to indicate the saint as someone who wrote a great work of the Catholic Church, or a triangle or three-leaf clover for the Holy Trinity. Some cards also display some sort of action, like the St. Sebastian holy card, which depicts his martyrdom, and John the Baptist is most often depicted baptizing the Lord.
Special Events
Holy cards have a variety of different uses to day. One of the most common is to hand them out at funerals, first sacraments, and weddings. Cards given out at a funeral may have a favorite or patron saint of the deceased, or include a prayer for the dead on the back. A favorite wedding card is the Wedding at Cana prayer card. There are several different holy cards for the sacrament of first Holy Communion, and a patron saint card may be given to one being confirmed.
While there are many pre-printed cards available for these momentous occasions, Aquinas and More is also able to offer an extensive variety of custom holy cards – the widest, most varied selection anywhere. With a custom prayer card, you can select your favorite card from a plethora of images available and have the backside printed in anyway you choose – a favorite prayer, a name and date for the person receiving a sacrament or a favorite quote from a saint or from scripture.
Prayer and Teaching Aid
A great thing about a holy card is that it is not only a lovely keepsake or piece of art, but typically is printed with a prayer on the back. You can keep a holy card with a prayer to your patron saint or for a particular intention in the car, tucked in a wallet, by your bed, or at the office to easily pick up and pray whether before going to sleep or as you start your morning commute. Novena prayer cards have a special novena prayer on the back, so it would be especially handy to carry one of these around for the nine days or nine weeks as you pray the novena.
Prayer cards also serve as way to teach children or new Catholics prayers. Holy cards with prayers such as the Nicene or Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and many others are useful to hand out in Sunday school or RCIA classes, as well as in the home to teach your children the prayers, or to hand out when teaching about a new saint. Churches will also commonly distribute prayer cards to parishioners with a prayer to the patron saint of the church or to pray for a certain intention the church is focused on.
Collecting holy cards can be a great way to learn new prayers and also collect beautiful yet inexpensive artwork. And now Aquinas and More has a great new binder to display your favorite holy cards in. Unlike a using photo book, these high quality albums come with specially sized insert pages – just the right size to perfectly hold and display your cards. Refill pages are also available, so there is no limit to how many cards you can collect!
If you’d like to learn more about holy cards, as well as see many unique images of antique cards, pick up Holy Cards, a coffee table-style book that is both beautiful and informational. Other available books are Patron Saints: A Feast of Holy Cards, and Visions of Mary, a book that includes Marian prayer cards as well as other images of Mary in art. To browse our extensive line of cards with many different subjects, including saints, Jesus, sacraments and more, click here.
Some information for this article was adapted from the book Holy Cards by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua.
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