Only three decks of European hand-painted playing cards are known to have survived from the late Middle Ages—two made in Germany and one in the Burgundian Netherlands, all dating from the early to late 15th century. The only complete set of these luxury cards—The Cloisters Playing Cards, from the southern Netherlands—and representative examples from the other two decks will be featured in the exhibition The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540, opening January 20 at The Cloisters.

The earliest surviving deck of hand-painted woodcut cards—and the finest example of such work from the German Renaissance—will also be included in the exhibition, where contextual background will be provided by 15th-century engraved and woodcut playing cards from Germany and tarot cards from North Italy. Among the works on view will be examples by the Basel painter Konrad Witz (1400-1445) and two other artists of the period who were known as Master E. S. and Master of the Playing Cards.

The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe.

Card games originated in China in the ninth century and were later taken up in India and the Middle East. Playing cards first appeared in Europe around the late 14th century, probably through trade. Because card games often involved gambling, clerical and civilian authorities in Europe banned cards. Early European decks were not standardized and featured diverse suit pictures as well as variety in the number of suits and the number of cards.