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ROME — Until a few decades ago, practically everybody attending a Catholic baptism, first Communion or funeral would walk out of the ceremony with a holy card in their pocket or purse.
Typically the size of a slightly elongated playing card, with the image of a saint or the Virgin Mary on one side and a short prayer on the other, holy cards are a centuries-old church tradition. The faithful have long used them not only as devotional aids but as a sort of spiritual talisman.
Holy cards are still easy to find in Catholic countries on taxi cab dashboards, barbershop mirrors and the cash registers of small, family-run shops.
But in recent years — except for the images of such popular modern saints as Padre Pio — the cards have grown rarer. Devotees are less likely to hand them out, and families less likely to commission them to commemorate rites of passage.
At the same time, holy cards are increasingly sought after by scholars and collectors, who prize them as historically rich and often exquisite works of graphic art.
Graziano Toni was only 18 when his pastor in the northeastern Italian city of Faenza gave him his personal store of holy cards as a present. Today the former bank employee dedicates himself full-time to his collection, which now numbers some 50,000 items.
“This goes far beyond mere collecting for me,” he said. “These are images that speak to my heart.”
Toni has compiled about 2,000 of his finest specimens in “The First International Catalog of Holy Cards,” recently published by the Italian firm Unificato (
The catalog documents its subject’s rising prestige with estimates of what holy cards can fetch at antique markets and collectors’ fairs.
For especially rare or elaborate designs, prices run as high 3,600 euros ($4,700).
Toni’s 512-page book is of more lasting interest as a vivid, four-century chronicle of an art form’s development.
The history of holy cards begins soon after Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, in 1440. The same technology that would help spread Protestantism through reformers’ tracts and Bible translations enabled the proliferation of religious images that Protestant iconoclasts abhorred.
During the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, evangelizing Jesuit priests were eager distributors of holy cards, particularly among the illiterate.
From early on, holy cards were also put to secular use. Notaries often attached them to legal documents to guarantee their legitimacy, and travelers would put them inside trunks as supernatural insurance against theft.
Though holy cards were normally distributed by priests and nuns, and their content required a bishops’ approval, they also attracted the interest of entrepreneurs. From the late 17th to the mid 19th century, one Italian firm regularly sent salesmen to hawk its line at town markets and religious festivals as far away as Russia.
The holy card’s age of “maximum splendor” came in the 17th and 18th centuries, Toni said, when the handiwork of monks and nuns grew increasingly refined. Gems from this period often feature intricate cutting to produce the effect of delicate lace borders, miniature watercolor portraits, and collages made of such luxurious materials as silk, velvet and seed pearls.
In the 19th century, a more efficient way to reproduce images (lithography) transformed holy cards into a mass market industry, with images commonly circulating by the thousands.
Large-scale production hardly meant the demise of quality, Toni said, pointing to the vivid colors and fine lines that distinguish outstanding work in the 1800s. It was during this period, amid rising literacy rates, that prayers commonly appeared on the flip side of a saint’s image.
The 20th century, especially the period since World War II, has witnessed the decline of holy cards in both quality and popularity.
“The paper is cheaper, the colors don’t have the same tonalities, the designs are less interesting,” Toni said.
Though he sees no single cause for the trend, Toni admits that diminishing religiosity and the proliferation of competing visual stimuli from mass media have undoubtedly undermined the demand for high-quality work.
Significantly, the most recent example in Toni’s catalog dates from around World War I. He is at work on another volume about the latter-day history of holy cards, which he says will be a “complete and exhaustive study of decadence.”
Some aficionados might see cause for hope in a sort of 21st-century version of holy cards: cell-phone downloads. An ad for such products, featuring images of Jesus as well as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, appears on the inside front cover of Toni’s own catalog.
But the author, while granting that the innovation might be useful to the devout, hardly feigns enthusiasm.
“The world moves on and we must adjust,” he says. “But for me, a holy card is something that exists only on paper.”
By Francis X. Rocca
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service.All rights reserved.No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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