The History and Symbolism of the Pope's Red Shoes

It is well enough known that when Benedict XVI rose to the papal office one of the tasks he set about was attempting to show continuity with his predecessors -- and not just his immediate post-conciliar predecessors -- by, amongst other things, restoring elements of traditional papal vestments and vesture.  One such element was that of the traditional red papal shoes. Predictably, some ecclesiastical "progressives" reacted with disdain and the secular-minded interpreted this merely as a matter of fashion or personal taste -- dandyism if you will. Both reactions are ill-informed of course, though for very different reasons. 

In the case of the latter, the intimation of this being some mere (i.e. shallow) fashion choice is itself rooted in a shallow understanding of the matter in question. The red papal shoes are no more a matter of mere personal style than is the white cassock of the pope, the red cassock of the cardinals, the purple of the bishops, or the black of priests. As is so often the case with such dress, the form of them is tied to considerations of both rank and symbolism. In the case of the red papal shoes, red shoes have been worn by the popes for centuries; it was not an invention of Benedict XVI, he instead he humbly adhered and submitted to the tradition established before him. 

The popes had summer and winter versions of these shoes and they came in forms such as leather, velvet or silk -- traditionally with a golden cross upon them. (And in this regard I should note that Benedict's own red papal shoes were distinctly simple and 'modern' by comparison in their very plain and singularly modern leather form.) 

Detail of a painting of Pope Pius VII by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Detail of a pair of 18th century papal shoes in the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.
Copyright © 2017 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (Photo: Ron Wood)

Msgr. Xavier Barbier Montault describes the usage as follows in his work Le Costume Et Les Usages Ecclsiastiques Selon La Tradition Romaine:

The papal footwear has a special designation. The Romans gave the name mules to a light pair of shoes coloured with a red dye derived from the mullet [mule], an ocean-dwelling fish. The pope’s shoes are flat-soled shoes made of morocco leather or red cloth, for the winter, and silk for the summer. They are fastened with red silk laces ending in golden tassels. A gold stripe runs around the edges and a cross is embroidered on the surface, because the pope offers his foot for the faithful to kiss. 
As a rule the pope changes shoes every week on Saturday evening, and every evening before a feast. When not in service, the shoes remained in the care of the first aide de chambre. Pius IX did not wish to maintain this bothersome custom since new shoes are always disagreeable to the feet, but he maintained the ceremonial rite for solemn audiences, consistories, and when holding chapel. Otherwise he made use of a special pair of red velvet shoes for the winter, and red satin for the summer, merino [wool] for penitential seasons and times of mourning, such as Advent, Lent, Ember Days, fasting vigils, etc. 
Throughout the whole Easter octave, the papal shoes are of white damask to match the rest of the costume, which does not admit any other colour, red being excluded.
In terms of history, like many other aspects of Catholic vestments and vesture, its origins tie back to the Roman Empire. Historically, dyes of certain colours were more difficult to obtain and their use was thus naturally limited which thus created a symbolic association to a certain societal status. This is well enough known where it came to the purple robes of the emperor or the purple highlights permitted on the robes of the Roman senators -- and thus also the "sacred purple" of Catholic prelates -- but it was also the case where the colour of shoes were concerned. In short, it was a symbol of leadership -- which a pope is par excellence (and it was also found, it should be noted, in the choir dress of the cardinals). 

As far as symbolism is concerned, while symbols are naturally interpretative in nature (meaning there is not necessarily one "correct" interpretation per se) the use of the red for the shoes of the Pope, like the red dress of the cardinals, has traditionally been understood as a symbol of the blood of the martyrs (and the corresponding willingness to die for the Faith) as well as a symbol of the Passion of Christ.

Both this historical and symbolic aspect have to be taken into consideration when looking at this usage for they counter-balance one another: symbols of leadership on the one hand and servitude on the other. In the end, we are left with a symbol which is rooted both in the rich history of Roman-Byzantine culture and the Church.

Shoes of Pope St. Pius V

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Postscript: On the very same day that this article was being written, the following article also appeared on Radio Spada (here in a Google translation) on the very same subject, though from a slightly different angle. Do take a look at it as well.

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