These Victorian model prayer playing cards may be very comforting

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As I write, there are half a dozen in front of me – prayer cards, a kind of sacred image that people once put in their prayer books. Now that churchgoers tend not to use them, it's hard to see their modern function except in the form of commemorative cards for the dead that bereaved families might give to well-wishers. But the purpose of the cards is that they have pictures of Our Lord, Our Lady or the saints of a very special kind: pretty, easy on the eyes and reminiscent of a kind of piety that has almost disappeared from the world. They have a Victorian character and are largely derived. invariably sentimental.

I collected them as a child – and there were many. Our Lady of Fatima or Lourdes was popular, but so was St. Francis or St. Joseph or the Christ Child. The six cards in front of me are from the pretty prayer book my mother published as a child in 1928, and some of them are inscribed on her. The picture on the cover of the prayer book has a similar character: it is Christ the Good Shepherd with a pink robe over his tunic and a lamb as he opens the door to the sheepfold for his flock.

I thought it was beautiful as a child. And I still do it even though as an adult I can see that it's a terrible art … sentimental, pretty, with the expression of Christ being gentle. For a child, however, it was hugely enjoyable: I liked the mild expression on the holy face, I liked the pink robes, I liked the obedient sheep and the cute little lamb and the sunny landscape in the background. Sentimental images are designed precisely to evoke feelings. The feeling is intense empathy and softness of the heart. Without knowing it, you felt that you should identify with the lamb.

Bad art in this sense of being pretty and shamelessly emotionally exploitative without austerity serves a useful spiritual purpose. It attracts the eye of simple and unsophisticated people and children and arouses a special kind of piety. It is impossible to be afraid of these images; They are very comforting. Among my mother's cards is one of Francis holding Christ up on the cross as the Savior bows down from the cross. Christ here is graceful, not torn; his move to Francis is a hug. There are none of the horrors of Passion here, but it still has a strong emotional charge.

Then there is another picture of the Christ Child, again in pink, carrying a lamb and holding a branch out to his lying sheep. That too attracts a child's eye. "Jesus, divine child, come reign in my soul" is the prayer and the bright colors and the sweetness of the expression have long attracted me. Another picture of the Christ Child shows him solemnly against a pleasant green background with green palm trees and holding an open book with Alpha and Omega on the opposite pages. The face is of a doll, expressionless but sweet and serious. In Latin it says: "Learn from me … for I am meek and humble." Another other Christ Child with lambs – this was clearly a running motif for religious pictures of children – shows him sitting with a glowing IHS on top, a cross on his back and doves on his side and feet and a lily on one side. It is quiet, an expression of the trust of the sheep and the holiness of the child.

These pictures do their job extremely well. They are designed to help the recipient feel love, not fear, for Christ, and these images – their small size greatly contributes to their appeal – are an admirable aid to affective spirituality, making the viewer feel that the images are theirs or his are. The one of St. Joseph carrying the Christ Child with many lilies would be unbearable for an adult with a claim to artistic sensitivity, but that is not the person for whom they are intended; They are intended to instill gentle reverence in those who are not too clever to enjoy sweetness. The closest equivalent in respectable art is perhaps Murillo or Greuze if he should be doing devotional art.

Like plaster statues, these cards are reminiscent of a vanished piety. But they move precisely because they are for children. And for such is the kingdom of heaven.

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