What Medium?


Just as an interesting side question, does someone have a good source of information on what medium, exactly, the 15th century decks were done in? Oil, ink, gold leaf, etc?

Just thought I'd throw out a different sort of question; I'm in medieval renactment and I'm thinking about doing a card as an art entry, particularly since there are three in that area/time period to use as reference.


There are more than three that are available when one just considers cards and the medium. For example, the card on display at the Mediaeval Museum in Paris is not from a tarot deck, but similarly sized and painted.

The basic stock appears to be cardboard (but it could be velum, though these tend to warp with time), and the paint seemingly yoke-based (tempora), with either much or little gold-leaf applied.


What medium?

Paper making in Europe at this stage in history was a relatively new craft the quality was rather fragile and often made with fibre from worn out (recycled) clothing. This was then printed on and glued to a backing board to give mechanical strength and durability.

An interesting side issue here is that a number of paper makers were of religious thought in opposition to the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church and thus declared heretics and pursued by the Office of the Holy Inquisition. As a result the production of paper was often disrupted by religious purges and craftspeople would have to relocate to areas outside the reaches of the established church, typically England and parts of Holland. There have been some interesting papers written on the watermarks of these people that chart otherwise unwritten history of esoteric societies.

The printing process comprised of carving the images onto wooden blocks, coating the raised areas with a black carbon based ink and printing onto sheets of paper. When you work out the most economic placement of cards on a sheet you end up with 80 spaces ie. 78 cards plus two spares.

These sheets were then cut up and pasted to the backing card stock.

Depending on the type of market the cards were destined for, the quality of production could be anything from utilitarian through to lavish.

Due to the fragility of the paper stock and adhesive used, the paint was of a water based type. On the cheaper cards it was of a "thin" pigment, almost washed out. For the rich solid colours it was of a style called gouache and depending on the colour a touch of egg yolk added to give an added vibrance.

Gold would only be used on cards for select clients and would be anything from powdered gold mixed with a gum to produce a paint for highlights or actual gold leaf wich is applied in sheet form to cover larger ares. This was and still is a very skilled art which is labour inetnsive for the area covered.

Due to the fragility of the paper and card stock, paints, inks and adhesives would have to be water based as oil (mineral) based mediums would have adverse effects on the final product.

I hope this goes some way in answering your question.


Thank you both so much for your help. :)


If, by 15th c. you mean the extant ones, then you're talking about individually hand-painted decks. I know that Menegazzi was working with a woman artist to try and discover exactly how these decks were produced. I don't know about the components of the paint but there were often several layers. For instance, the gold-leaf was applied over a reddish background and the patterns were hammered in (tarocata). The backing was a hard cardboard consisting of several layers of paper glued together - almost like a papermache. In person these cards are far more beautiful then any reproduction can begin to represent.

The woodcut decks were printed on rather flimsy paper (at least the one I was able to look at at the National Library in Washington). They would then be glued to a larger piece of backing paper and the edges folded over the front edge of the woodcut to form a border.

By the mid-to-late 15th century paper-making was well established and hemp was the preferred material for durability and fineness. For instance, the Gutenberg Bible is on hemp paper and holding up beautifully.