Pontifical Sandals: A Brief History and Consideration

Pontifical sandals, also called "sandalia" or "compagi," are a topic of long interest to me. While the subject of liturgical footwear might seem somewhat arcane, what it really amounts to is that it is part of the full liturgical 'armour' of the prelate. This is little different to me than interest in the full vesting of the altar with antependia or indeed, even the most basic vestments such as the chasuble, dalmatic or tunicle. They all amount to pieces in a bigger puzzle. 

Now the reaction of some to sandalia can be one of discomfort or outright criticism. This is usually because they do not understand what they are and view them as being part of some renaissance or baroque accretion tied to secular pomp and pageantry. The reality is that liturgical sandals are quite ancient, going back as least as far as the 5th century and assuredly earlier still than that.

History and Development

In those ancient times, the form of the liturgical sandals were slipper like, made of leather, covering the toe and heel and being attached by straps. Under these were worn the stockings -- what we would today call buskins -- which are surmised to have been white and made of linen.  In these ancient times, these vestments were not restricted to bishops but also used by other clergy.  (It is speculated that the originations of these may have been the ancient senators of Rome.) The Catholic Encyclopedia continues:
"Their use gradually became customary among the higher clergy, especially when these appeared in their full official capacity for the celebration of the Liturgy. During the eighth and ninth centuries also the Roman subdeacons and acolytes wore a distinctive foot-wear, the subtalares, which, however, were simpler than the campagi, and had no straps. The sandals and stockings became a specifically episcopal vestment about the tenth century."
The form of the sandals remained the same through until the 10th century at which time the straps were replaced "by three or five tongues reaching to the ankle, extensions of the upper leather upon the point of the foot, and these were fastened at ankle by means of a string. In the twelfth century these tongues were gradually shortened; in the thirteenth century, the sandal was a regular shoe with a slit above the foot or on the side to make the putting on easier."

Pontifical Sandals from the 12th century (Source)

Pontifical Sandals from the 13th century (Source)
16th Century pontifical sandal
© Roland Fischer, Z├╝rich (Switzerland) – Mail notification to: roland_zh(at)hispeed(dot)ch / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 Unproved
An interesting thing then happens in the 16th century whereby there is a restoration of the more ancient form of the sandal as something more akin to a slipper. This is the form we still know today.

Modern Ceremonial Instructions and Design

The estimatable John Abel Nainfa in Costumes of Prelates of the Catholic Church According to Roman Etiquette describes the physical forms and legislation around pontifical sandals accordingly:
"The shape of these sandals is that of low shoes, with a thin sole and a flat heel. They would be even more correct, and more in conformity with etiquette and tradition, if they had no heel at all.

"They are fastened with silk ribbons or strings, to the end of which are attached small gold tassels if the Prelate is a Cardinal, a Bishop, or a Protonotary Apostolic di numero or supernumerary; tufts or tassels of silk, if he is of a lower rank.

"The Rubric prescribes that the color of the sandals should match that of the vestments, that is the color required by the office of the day; but at Requiem Masses the officiating Prelate does not wear the sandals.

"These sandals should be made of silk; no Prelate is allowed sandals of velvet or of gold cloth, and the Pope and Cardinals alone have a right to wear sandals embroidered with gold or silver. Bishops and the Protonotanes Apostolic di numero and supernumerary may wear sandals bordered with a gold or silver strip; but other Prelates who may have the privilege of the pontificals " should wear sandals with no other ornament than a border of yellow silk braid.

"We sometimes see Cardinals and Bishops wearing sandals with a gold cross embroidered on the upper; and even some handbooks dealing with liturgical matters seem to give this practice as legitimate; but it is a usurpation or a mistake against which all serious authors protest; the cross embroidered on the sandals being a special and personal privilege of the Sovereign Pontiff.

"The pontifical sandals, as well as the liturgical stockings, are to be used only at High Mass pontifically celebrated; they go together and are prescribed by the same rubric. A Prelate is no more permitted to waive this rubric under the pretext of simplicity, than to celebrate Mass without the proper vestments."
A few things you might want to take from the above paragraphs in brief are that pontifical sandals are only used within the context of the Solemn Pontifical Mass, that their particular ornamentation varies according to the particular rank of the prelate, and finally that there are no such thing as black pontifical sandals. (Also noteworthy is that, already then, in 1909 when this was written, there was an evident need to fight against those who would dispense with these noble vestments under the premise of 'simplicity.')

Pontifical sandals are placed on the feet of the prelate during the pontifical vesting rites. They are put on after the buskins as seen here:

(Sandals and buskins made by Gammarelli's)
While this is happening the prelate prays the following:

Ad Caligas : Calcea, Domine, pedes meos in praeparationem evangelii pacis, et protege me in velamento alarum tuarum. [Shod my feet, Lord, unto the preparation of the gospel of peace, and protect me under the cover of thy wings.]

Once this is done, this is how the sandals and buskins look when worn by the prelate:

(Made by Gammarelli's)
And here in full pontifical array:


While it has been lost on many these past few decades, these pontificals are a source of a great deal of interest and inspiration to many, especially of the younger generations, thirsty for the fullness of their Catholic inheritance. As with anything, while some may have a more frivolous or shallow interest in these things, it would be both too easy as well as inaccurate to suggest that this is the limit of their appeal in general. Quite to the contrary. There are many for whom their interest in this goes much deeper, from an interest in their long history in the Catholic liturgy, to their liturgical and theological symbolism (Durandus suggests an allusion to Romans 10:5, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the Gospel of peace.."), to an appreciation of the fact that every aspect of the prelate's secular clothing is removed or covered in this most solemn liturgical expression. 

Regardless, however, of the particular appeal they may have to younger generations, this is not the reason they should be maintained (in the usus antiquior) or restored (in the usus recentior). The reason is rather that they are a longstanding part of our tradition, reaching back to ancient times, and also an important reminder that everything in the liturgical life of the Church matters and is there for a purpose and reason. In a time when the secular world ever encroaches every aspect of life, it is important that our liturgical expression be both conscious and confident of being something in the world but not of the world. 

Details matter and these not only do not look 'silly,' they actually are quite noble -- the sort of thing that inspire exhibitions in fact.  In this regard I would urge our prelates and communities of the usus antiquior to have the vision and motivation to procure all of these pontificals so that they are at the ready for visits from their local ordinaries. You can be assured that there are any number of vestment makers who are ready, willing and able to make these for you. 

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Here are some other examples of pontifical sandals.

(Made by Gammarelli's)

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