Prayer Cards from Days of Yore (if ‘Yore’ is about a hundred or so years ago!)

Ok, a bit melodramatic with the title, I’ll admit, but these are pretty cool. Those of us who grew up with this devotional technology have a pretty clear idea of what constitutes a proper prayer card: they’re good card stock, about the size of a credit card, or maybe a little larger (mine all run 2 ½ x 4”), and they have a color image of one’s Deity; most of all though, they’re colorful and vibrant. That wasn’t, however, always the case.

I have a small collection of old prayer cards. By old, I mean early nineteenth century onward. I don’t have many, maybe half a dozen, but I’m fascinated by paper ephemera, the end result of a semester of paleography (at which I am utterly hopeless, no matter how intriguing I find the subject). I have bits of ballet ephemera, some old legal documents from late eighteenth century France (written in exquisite hand), two medieval manuscript pages that I picked up for cheap at antique markets, and the prayer cards. Basically, I have a lot of neat but random shit all over my house lol.

One thing I noticed when I acquired the older prayer cards, the ones printed in the mid 1800s, is that they don’t look at all like what we’d consider a proper prayer card today. First of all, they usually didn’t incorporate much (if any) color – like this Dutch card from 1891.

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(From my personal collection)

Also, they were fragile. Part of this may have been the design: instead of color, many of them were cut in lace-like patterns. They’re lovely, but very delicate. I’m not quite sure how they would have been carried! I can’t imagine, for instance, slipping this one into my wallet without seeing it utterly destroyed.

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19th century French prayer card made of foil (from my collection).

Or this one:

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19th century French “lace” prayer card (from my collection). I have this resting on a piece of cut cardboard so you can really see the lace design well in the photo.

I have no idea how these would ever have been carried. Perhaps they were tucked in prayer books to aid in meditation, perhaps they were placed on shrines. I have no idea though it’s something I may research when I have the time. I’m also not sure when the style changed. By the 1950s, you start seeing more colorful images thanks to advances in printing and lithography, often adorned with a lot of faux gold leaf. The paper still tends to be flimsier than what we’d be comfortable using today, but they look more like the contemporary idea of prayer cards.

Also, please note, I’m only talking about Catholic prayer cards here. I have no samples of Hindu prayer cards from the nineteenth century, only this one below made about twenty years ago. It’s rather keenly made, however, in that it opens like a little book, with a prayer on one leaf, and an image –white Tara—on the other.

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(from my personal collection).

Anyway, I thought it would be rather interesting to show an example of how prayer cards have evolved. This is the same technology we use today but the form is so different. It will be interesting to see how our prayer cards and devotional images evolve over the next hundred years! In the meantime, if you have any unusual prayer cards, please feel free to post in the comments. I’d love to see them.

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on April 25, 2015, in Prayer cards and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. ganglerisgrove

    Looking through some of my cards, some of them from the turn of the century, had gorgeous images but no prayer. the back of the cards were blank. I can see the reasoning in this (allows you to use the image for devotional work while at the same time not tying you into a prayer written by someone else), but personally I like the prayers on the backs.

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  2. I used to have a copy of the Raccolta, the official Roman Catholic compilation of prayers and devotions that carry indulgences. It was in Latin and English and probably published no later than the 1950s. It came *packed* with prayer cards–holy pictures, bookmarks with quotes, etc. I remember there was a bookmark that quoted “In His will is our peace” from Dante’s Paradiso and a holy card of the Sacred Heart, which was always kind of fascinating and horrifying to a little Episcopalian. *g*

    Your Hindu prayer card is actually Tibetan Buddhist! Tarthang Tulku, who was born in Tibet and taught in the west, is still around and still teaching. White Tara is another aspect of Tara, whose best known aspect is Green Tara. When I’m feeling Buddhist, I’m pretty devoted to Green Tara, who famously vowed that she would only achieve buddhahood as a woman.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      lol I would have loved that book! it would have been a treasure trove, even if some of the images creeped me out. 🙂 What an awesome find.

      thanks for the info about the Tibetan Buddhist card. I have no idea where I acquired it, but up until that point, i’d never seen a prayer card that opened like a little book. I think it’s really cool. I have been known to make offerings to Tara on occasion…She upended my life (and rightly so) once a very long time ago.

      wow…i’m totally fascinated by the prayer book you describe. *G*

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  3. When I was a young girl, I visited my Aunt, who was a cloistered nun of the Visitation order. She and Her fellow nuns make hand made holy cards. Many had lace surrounding the main image. They also made fancy holy cards, with a touched relic (3rd class) of the saint pictured on the holy card.
    I am a spiritual friend of the “Sisters of Carmel” who still make these delicate holy cards that inspire devotion. That art form is still practiced in a few holy orders of various religions. They are so very special. How I wish that our Gods & Goddesses would have such beautiful tokens of devotions!
    Blessings to all here.

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