Holy Cards Are Like Little Windows Into Heaven

The first holy cards were sold during the Middle Ages to pilgrims as keepsakes of their visit to a shrine.

(photo: From the collection of Thomas Craughwell)

Holy cards are one of the most enduring, most endearing facets of Catholic devotional life. Like family photographs they are tangible reminders of people we love.

Nuns and priests, once great distributors of holy cards, appear to have fallen out of the habit of giving them to schoolchildren—which is how I received my first card, from a Redemptorist priest named Father Thomas, when I was six years old. Every week or so Father Thomas visited the classes at my parish school and awarded every child in the room a holy card. I still have it, a little picture of Our Lord standing amid the clouds.

By handing out holy cards to children Father Thomas was keeping alive a long-standing Catholic tradition. When St. John Neumann was bishop of Philadelphia, he kept bundles of holy cards in his pockets, gifts for children he encountered on his daily rounds through the city. Years later, when the cause to make John Neumann a saint began, many elderly Philadelphians still possessed holy cards they had received from their bishop; what they had once cherished as a childhood memento they now treasured as the relic of a saint.

The first holy cards were sold during the Middle Ages to pilgrims as keepsakes of their visit to a shrine. The oldest surviving holy card is a black-and-white woodcut image of St. Christopher dating from 1423. These cards were not really cards; they were pictures printed on inexpensive paper. Since they were easily lost, or torn, or destroyed, very few medieval holy cards have survived. But in 2005 one turned up unexpectedly at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the art history faculty was mounting an exhibit of artifacts and relics from the period of anti-Catholic persecution in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Among the treasures on display was a Book of Hours that had belonged to an English family who remained faithful Catholics after Henry VIII broke with Rome. As the curators examined the prayerbook they found, pasted on the last page, a holy card from the early 1500s, hand-colored, from the shrine of the Holy Rood in Bromholm, Norfolk. Only one other Bromholm holy card has survived the iconoclasm of the English Reformation, so this discovery created a sensation among the curators and among art historians and historians of the Church during the age of the Tudors.

Almost as rare as holy cards from Catholic England are the cards that were produced by cloistered nuns in 17th century France. The sisters would mount a holy picture on a piece of plain white paper large enough to create a frame. Then, using the finest razors and penknives available, they cut out bits of the white paper to create elaborate lacy patterns around the holy picture. Such intricate handwork could take months for one nun to complete. Given the fragility of these lace paper cards and the exquisite workmanship involved in creating them, when one appears on the market collectors have been known to bid $1000 or more to acquire such a prize.

By 1600 holy cards were being produced in large numbers by skilled engravers. Their best clients were the Jesuits who distributed these black-and-white images in Europe as well as in their missions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. In 1621 the most popular image was a portrait of John Berchmans, a saintly, 22-year-old Flemish Jesuit novice who had died suddenly while studying for the priesthood in Rome. John’s early death set off a devotional frenzy in his homeland—engravers churned out thousands of copies of his portrait, but they couldn’t keep up with the demand.

The golden age of holy cards came in the 19th century, particularly in Belgium, Austria, and Germany, where printers used a method called chromolithography to mass produce holy cards of exceptional beauty. Chromolithography was the first successful method for multi-color printing, but it was also a complicated, time-consuming process in which an image passed through the press many times, with a new color added each time the sheet of paper ran through the machine. The results were magnificent, and these miniature works of art are still admired today.

One of the finest printers of chromlithographic holy cards, the Society of St. Augustine in Bruges, Belgium, turned out hundreds of different designs. Today, you can find them up for auction on eBay.

In 1792 Swiss printer Carl Benziger—a famous name in Catholic publishing that we of a certain age will remember—began producing holy cards for pilgrims to the shrine of Our Lady of Einsiedeln. Over time, he expanded his product line and found a large market for his cards among Catholics in the United States, so much so that in 1838 he opened a branch office in Cincinnati.

An outstanding private producer of holy cards in the late 19th/early 20th century was Beuron Archabbey, a Benedictine monastery located on the Danube near the town of Imdorf in Germany. Under their first abbot, Dom Maurus Wolter (died 1890), the monks of Beuron began an ambitious decoration program in their monastery based on late Roman/early Byzantine art. The Beuronese style is characterized by elegant figures and deep, rich colors, and the monks used that style for their holy cards. To this day the Beuron cards are a favorite with collectors.

In the 19th century there was a collectible dimension to holy cards. French chocolatiers slipped holy cards of martyrs, or monks, or scenes from the life of Joan of Arc into each box of chocolates. (Buy more chocolate and collect them all!) At one point a French manufacturer of beef, veal, and chicken stock packaged his product with scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi; printed on the back of each holy card was an advertisement for the company’s products.

Holy cards remained popular well into the 20th century, and although they sold for pennies a piece, the demand for the cards was so great that printers still made a profit. For example, during World War II a German Franciscan nun, Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, helped to keep her convent solvent by painting more than 600 folksy, sentimental holy pictures that were reproduced and sold as holy cards.

Sadly, holy cards became a casualty of the war. After 1945 many holy card manufacturers in Europe went out of business, or sought more lucrative design and printing jobs from corporations. By the 1950s Italian holy card manufacturers dominated the market, turning out cloying images that many Catholics found unappealing. But the most serious blow to holy cards came in the years following the Second Vatican Council. The Novus Ordo Mass of Pope Paul VI made missals obsolete; now that private prayerbooks were gone, where could the faithful keep their holy cards? In the years after the council the emphasis was on everything that was new, modern, and progressive, and holy cards were decidedly old-fashioned. Some printers tried to update the look of holy cards by abandoning pictures of the saints altogether and producing cards that bore biblical verses set against pop-art backgrounds. It was an experiment that failed. The post-war holy cards may been saccharine, but the post-conciliar cards were hideous. No one would buy them. Holy cards, for so many years a mainstay of Catholic popular devotion, were on the endangered species list.

In recent years a renewed enthusiasm for holy cards has arisen from an unexpected quarter—private collectors. Unlike other Catholic “collectibles,” such as church statuary or antique vestments, which tend to be expensive and take up a great deal of space, holy cards are small, can be kept safely in plastic sleeves in a binder and stored on a bookshelf, and are often inexpensive. Tastes vary from collector to collector, of course, but as a rule they are looking for the exquisite chromolithgraphic holy cards produced in Europe in the 19th century. In 2005 holy cards got their own art exhibit called “Holy Cards: Picturing Prayers,” at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.

It’s easy to spot the collectors at an estate sale or a used book shop—they are the people flipping through old missals, prayerbooks, and bibles, hoping to find old holy cards tucked between the pages. But the major clearing house for old holy cards is the online auction site, eBay,com. You’ll find the best and widest selections on the eBay sites for France, Belgium, Germany/Austria, and the United States. While most cards, even those over one hundred years old, sell for about $9.99, it is possible to acquire an antique holy card for as little as $2.99. Rare images of little known saints tend to achieve the highest prices—$40 or more. The one exception to this rule is St. Joan of Arc: she is such a popular figure among collectors that virtually every holy card bearing her picture sells for a minimum of $30.

The next step in the holy card revival is introducing reproductions of antique holy cards into the marketplace. Some collectors have taken the first steps in that direction, but we are still a long way from the glory days of the 1800s when there was a treasure trove of splendidly produced holy cards in almost every Catholic’s missal.