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In the Christian tradition, holy cards or prayer cards are small, devotional pictures mass-produced for the use of the faithful. They usually depict a religious scene or a saint in an image about the size of a playing card. The reverse typically contains a prayer, some of which promise an indulgence for its recitation. The circulation of these cards is an important part of the visual folk culture of Roman Catholics, and in modern times, prayer cards have been also become popular among Orthodox Christians and Protestant Christians, although with the latter, biblical themes are emphasized within them.
Old master prints, nearly all on religious subjects, served many of the same functions as holy cards, especially the cheaper woodcuts; the earliest dated surviving example is from 1423, probably from southern Germany, and depicts Saint Christopher, with handcolouring, it is found as part of the binding of a manuscript of the Laus Virginis (1417) which belongs to the John Rylands Library, Manchester. Later engraving or etching were more commonly used. Some had elaborate borders of paper lace surrounding the images; these were called dévotes dentelles in France.
The invention of colour lithography made it possible to reproduce coloured images cheaply, leading to a much broader circulation of the cards. An early centre of their manufacture was in the environs of the Church of St Sulpice in Paris; the lithographed images made there were done in delicate pastel colours, and proved extremely influential on later designs. Belgium and Germany also became centres of the manufacture of holy cards, as did Italy in the twentieth century. Catholic printing houses (such as Maison de la Bonne Presse in France and Ars Sacra in Germany) produced large numbers of cards, and often a single design was printed by different companies in different countries.
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