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A Brief History of Holy Cards

By Maddie O’Mahoney

Holy cards are a style of Catholic devotion that originated during the 15th century. They gained popularity in medieval Europe after the advent of the printing press and after ameliorations in the papermaking process allowed greater production at a lower price. Medieval Europe was overwhelmingly Christian, and prior to the early 16th century, much of the region was Catholic. However, literacy rates did not rise to a majority — even in many wealthy countries — until the end of the 18th century. As a result, holy cards became a way for Catholics to embrace their faith, whether they could read or not. Cards have been used for a variety of purposes such as announcing first communions, births and deaths; giving tribute to religious icons; and marking significant dates. 

Today, medieval holy cards are popular with hobbyists, libraries and casual appreciators. The Marian Library at the University of Dayton boasts one of the largest collections of holy cards in the world. Though the primary focus is on those that depict Mary in the artwork, some of the cards depict saints, Jesus and other religious figures. The collections also feature cards styled in a French form of art called canivet, which translates to “small knife.” The canivet holy cards are produced by using a knife to cut out small pieces of paper. These holes create patterns similar to those seen in paper snowflakes and produce beautiful designs. Most of the cards are painted or include an image or photo. Some holy cards contain both canivet and images, and the combination of the styles is incredibly visually enticing. These cards have been decorated at their edges with small and symmetrical cuts, providing aesthetic appeal on the card itself. 

The Marian Library recently acquired a large donation of holy cards from Julie and Christina Brown. Christina is a University of Dayton alumna. The Julie Ann Brown and Christina Brown Holy Card Collection is a valuable addition to the library’s collections. Browse some examples in the gallery below. 

— Maddie O’Mahoney ’25 is a religious studies major and a student employee in the Marian Library.


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