The History of Religious Holy Cards

Pocket-sized images of religious figures, known as Holy Cards, first appeared in the 1500s.  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 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; story of a saint—has not. 

The printing of holy cards originated with the development of the process of woodcutting, around 1400 CE. These early woodcuts were usually simple religious images with symbols easily recognized by the pilgrims who purchased them. Woodcuts get their name from the way the image is produced: the negative space around the desired image was literally cut away 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. The invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century allowed for faster reproduction of woodcut prints. 

As the use of woodcutting declined, engravings emerged as the popular printing process. Engravings are an intaglio process, which is an Italian word that describes the process in which images are drawn directly onto a metal plate with a burin, a V-shaped sharp tool used to remove the excess metal. Once the image is complete, ink is applied and sits in the recesses that have been cut away. Any excess ink is removed and the plate is pressed onto paper using a rolling press.  This process was prominent from about 1450 to 1885. Copper, and later steel, were popular metals used for the plates. The process of engraving allowed the artist or printer to create fine lines directly onto the metal, something that was not possible with woodcuts. Later, wood engravings gained popularity later in the 19th century, especially among newspaper printers. Wood engravings used the relief process of printing like a woodcut, but used a burin like an intaglio engraving. The wood engraver would cut away the non-imaged areas with the burin, resulting in more precise white lines as opposed to the thick dark lines of a woodcut.

In 1798, a new way of printing Holy Cards was invented by Johann Alois Senefelder (1771 – 1834), a German actor and playwright.  Senefelder was interested in developing a new way to print the plays he authored.  He initially called his discovery “stone printing,” because the process involved printing from the flat surface of stone, but the French name for the process, lithography, eventually became more popular. The process was made possible because of the inability of grease and water to mix, such that the greasy ink is unable to spread to the wet non-image areas during printing.  It quickly became popular, as its versatility allowed users to manipulate the image easily.  The process was fast and inexpensive, which made it ideal for producing large numbers of images at one time. 

Chromolithography literally means color lithography, and initially referred to the act of hand coloring a black and white lithographic print.  Chromolithography as a printing process was introduced in France by Godefroy Engelmann in 1837 and popularized in the United States in the 1840s.  The only difference from lithography was the use of multiple stones, one for each color, which were then printed on top of each other in order to complete the print. Each color was pressed individually, but the end result allowed the viewer to see a complete colored image.

The turn of the 20th century ushered in a new era in the production of Holy Cards. Printing advances and increased demand for religious goods led to the production of Holy Cards on a massive scale. As cards were now being printed in the hundreds, the days of depicting obscure saints were gone in favor of more popular saints, prayers, or religious verses.  The Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) also impacted the printing of Holy Cards. The Council discouraged the production of ornate images of saints and other holy figures, instead emphasizing a more personal notion of piety and devotion that did not rely on symbolism. This resulted in less diversity in style and quality of religious art and imagery.  Instead of depictions of saints unique to the Holy Card, often the image on the front of the card was a just a reproduction of a famous piece of art. The process of lamination also influenced the production of cards. Lamination was popularized in the mid–20th century as a preservation method for paper and was eventually applied to Holy Cards. It improved the strength of the paper and prevented the usual wear and tear associated with Holy Cards.

Today, a Holy Card can be made for every occasion and, in many instances, does not even contain a religious image. This is especially true with commemorative and memorial cards, as it is common to see these cards printed with photos of the person being honored or remembered.  This personalizes the cards in a different way, and provides a constant reminder of the person and their life.  

The History of Religious Holy Cards