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A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

Posted by Theology of Home on
A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

By Denise Trull 

I am continually surprised, and delightedly so, by the amount of wisdom and knowledge that is gleaned and discussed over a simple cup of coffee. I have had a long standing ‘let’s get together for coffee' date for years now with a professor friend of mine who has her PhD in history, specifically the history of the Catholic French family in the 19th century. She has this particularly fine-tuned interest in the Catholic wife and mother of that time in France. Overflowing with a tremendous wealth of knowledge housed in a charming, gregarious personality, she is blessed with the gift of conversation.

Every once in a blue moon, when we are in the same city, we text randomly and meet at the corner table back by the window of our favorite coffee haunt. My happy job is to just keep filling her cup so she will tell me more and more. I am never once disappointed. She tells me of discovering ancient, small museums in out-of-the-way towns in France. She tells me of the libraries and the exciting streets of Paris. She talks about the joys and sorrows and challenges of upper level academia, of the ins and outs of research, and the process of writing book proposals. Needless to say, for an hour or two I am living quite vicariously through her experiences in lands I have never been. It is always inspiring. 

Early last year, she was in the middle of researching a book she was intending to write about the French mother and family gleaned through, of all things, the holy card industry of the mid-19th century. I was intrigued by this utterly novel thought, and poured her another cup of coffee. Using just the holy cards printed at that time, she is discovering all the challenges the French Church was experiencing: it’s missionary efforts, the doctrines that were being put forth with concerted effort -- all of it can be seen in the great and varied collections of holy cards from that era. Warming to her subject, she told me about all the beautiful, exquisitely small cards and images she has discovered in her research. I was fascinated at such a unique approach to the history of a Catholic people. The simple holy card. 

Holy cards are such humble things. They speak to me of little children. I remember sitting on the kneeler during Mass, when I was around four-years-old, ruffling through the pages of my mother’s missal. She had many holy cards tucked here and there within the pages. There was the death card of her wonderful father, Joseph LaFlamme, the ordination photo of a vivacious priest named Father Louis Rancci, whom I am told baptized me during an epic snowstorm blanketing the mountains of West Virginia. No one could get through. But good old Father Louis did -- this priest with a twinkling eye behind his horn rimmed glasses smiling up at me; this man I never met who had made me a child of God.

There were cards edged in lace and some were in French from my own mother’s girlhood in Canada. Some had a little piece of a saint’s habit sewn carefully to the card and were covered with a crocheted, lace-edged window. I stared at those a long time and even kissed them as I had seen others do, not knowing quite yet that they were relics. Many had angels floating above the heads of pretty infants dressed all in white. There were lilies blossoming out of staffs, and saints with glowing haloes. Holy cards just appeal to a real need for intimacy with God in our hearts. They are like getting to hold his hand or pressing His love to our cheek. I am told they can even be blessed and thus become sacramentals to us. I was always enchanted by them as a little girl when I spread them in different designs on the old pew before me during Mass.

There is a homey comfort to holy cards. They are not uppity “high Church” stuff or even for the most part “high art” -- though they can be most exquisite at times. They fit in the hand. They can be tucked in a tool box or the visor of a car. They slip into a missal or a book. They come with us wherever we go. In very truth they DO tell our life story -- the story of our own journey as we travel to the Father with Jesus and Mary at hand.

Being inspired by my friend’s research adventures, I wondered if holy cards had an emergent history of their own and where it began. It was no surprise that the small images first appeared among the peasant and lower classes of the 1400’s. Most paintings at that time were large, formal, expensive, and out of reach of the poor. One had to go to the great Churches to see images of saints and angels and Our Lady and Jesus. So, perhaps a devout farmer who was clever with a piece of charred wood from his hearth fire decided one day to draw a saint from his own imagination on some smoothed bark or a piece of cloth. Other peasant artists probably carved tiny saints or angels out of wood with their work knife and colored them with dyes from their harvest fruits and vegetables.

These small pictures of saints were put on mantles and on walls. They could be carried out to the fields and tucked in a boot or apron. This practice led to a great devotion to many different saints who were counted on to travel through the everyday with the ordinary people in whatever specific life they were living. Much interest in particular saints, some quite obscure but beloved for one reason or other to each particular soul, developed through this practice and soon the desire to acquire more of these little ‘cards’ grew.

With the development of woodcutting as an art in the 1400’s many cards of the same kind could be made and distributed. These early woodcuts were usually simple religious images carved more crudely with symbols like the Holy Spirit as a dove, or a chalice, or the large M for the Blessed Mother carved in relief out of a wood block and transferred with ink to  a piece of parchment or cheaper paper. These were popular among pilgrims making their way to one shrine or the other of a saint or Holy place.

Woodblock printing led to experimenting with metal engraving -- a process in which images were carved onto metal by an instrument called a burin. When the ink was applied it fell into the cracks made by the burin and the excess ink was wiped away. The metal was then pressed to paper and the ink trapped in the cracks formed the image. This process gave artists a chance to draw beautifully filigreed, more intricate artwork with the narrow burin. Later, more clever artists were also to reintroduce wood block printing with the use of these smaller burins, but made for wood. This gave the distinctive beauty of a woodcut more definition and line.

In 1798, a German actor and playwright, Johann Alois Senefelder started experimenting with a unique way to print off his plays. He called it “stone printing”. Later, the French named it lithography as lithos means stone in Greek and thus one is writing on stone. The process involved painting the images in a type of grease based ink or crayon. Chemicals were then applied to the designs which affixed them to the stone. Since the images were not carved, they could be easily changed or added to in the drawing process. Drawing with different colored inks on separate stones and then applying each one on top of the other made for the beginnings of colored printing. With this process, even more details could emerge in the creation of Holy Cards. Many exquisite cards came from this time period and on through the 1800’s. These were the kind of cards my friend was researching.

As time went on and more modern printing came into existence, holy cards could be mass produced as the demand for them increased. The unfortunate outcome of this simplified production was that the more obscure saints and the rich, detailed religious imagery of earlier centuries gave way to a limited number of popular saints and the loss of understanding of the unique symbolism used historically in the Catholic Church and which had been so present on the more “old fashioned” cards. Also, many saints lives were forgotten as the cards had less variety than before.  The unique quality of lace edged, intricately designed cards gave way to more simple, mass produced items.

In recent years, however, there has been a movement of artists who are bringing back the beautiful style and religious imagery of older days. It is a worthy effort to craft these little beauties that will remind us on a daily basis who we are and what we should be. A beautiful holy card can fill you instantly with a sudden awareness of the presence of God. Holy cards are like  small, exquisite lodestones drawing you back to Him as you travel through your day.

With all this in mind, I went and found the old, wooden box of holy cards on a shelf at the back of my closet that I have gathered through the years. I spent a good hour or two carefully picking up one at a time and spreading them in the old designs on the floor that I used to make on the pew when I was little.

There were cards of favorite saints given to me by friends who thought I should get to know them, and they were correct: Francis de Sales, Elizabeth of the Trinity, and Rita. There was the beautiful little card of the Sacred Heart pressed into my hand by an old, smiling Cistercian monk who told me I would understand the power of His heart in time. There was the reminder that Archbishop Carlson consecrated our diocese to the Holy Spirit. And the holy card of Our Lady's Shrine being dedicated in our parish Church that reminded me of the odyssey our pastor underwent with us to restore and refurbish our amazing old German Church building.


There are ordination cards, death remembrance cards, perpetual vows cards. Cards brought home for me from the travels of friends to France, Poland, and Italy. All my favorite pictures of Christ, Our Lady, and St. Francis. One of St. John Paul II weeping that reminds me he is happy now. A flower card given to me by a gentle, Japanese Poor Clare who wrote the word for prayer in delicate calligraphy underneath. One card of St Stephen, to whom I have a great devotion, drawn by a friend depicting the stones and blood reminding me of the cost of martyrdom. My father and mother’s funeral cards were there and the funeral cards of friends’ children taken so soon from their parents. On and on it went. My spiritual journey emerged from all these cards and it made me grateful for God’s enduring help and love in my life.

I began keeping an eye out for more beautiful holy cards. I fell in love with one particular St. Michael because he is youthful and so earnest.

Some cards are theologically rich, like the one of a priest saying Mass surrounded by the host of Heaven as Jesus bends down to him from the cross -- a reminder that Heaven is present at each and every Mass. I have a little pamphlet with Our Lady on the front which teaches you how to pray the rosary prayers in Latin. It brought me back to my college days when I was able to sing the whole Mass in Latin and understand what I was saying. This little card made me renew that effort.


In the end, I was very grateful to my friend for bringing the forgotten idea of holy cards to my mind again and giving me the impetus to take a look once more at my life represented there. We are all creatures of sense. Holy cards give us something to see and to touch, a symbol to love, a drawing of a saint that points out something important that we might have forgotten. They are not childish, but they do appeal to the child within us that seeks to hold the hand of God for a bit. I encourage each and every one of you to take a quiet hour to look over your own holy cards scattered about the house. You will grow in gratitude and love, I am certain, and may find yourself marveling at the power one, tiny card can have for dipping you suddenly in the grace of God.

I suppose the moral of this story is: always meet for coffee with an enthusiastic friend who is a great conversationalist. You don’t know where that coffee will take you. I look forward to what we may be talking about next time. I will keep you all posted! Blessed be the company of friends and the love of God that brings us together. 

Praise Him!

See more beautiful holy cards here.

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri. 

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