What do the popes and Dorothy of Oz have in common?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | November 10, 2014

Papal red shoes have a much longer history than the Wizard of Oz movie

Seventy-five years ago the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” premiered in three test markets — two were in Wisconsin (Kenosha and Oconomowoc). Dorothy and Toto, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow headed down the Yellow Brick Road to Oz.

What does that have to do with the Catholic Church? Well, not all that much — except for the connection with red shoes.

The pope wore red shoes long before Dorothy did on celluloid.

In fact, the custom of red footwear dates back to a time even before there was a pope, and some say, even before there was an empire of Rome.

The Kingdom of Rome rose in the eight century B.C., and its king was an absolute ruler. Among his formal attire were red shoes and a purple toga. The dyes used for royal reds and purples were very expensive throughout the ancient world and were limited to royalty, or at least to the very rich.

There was also an Etruscan civilization around that same time. The Etruscans were native to Italy and flourished alongside the Kingdom of Rome and probably came before it, since there is Etruscan art that dates before anything Rome produced.

And there is evidence that red sandals were worn by Etruscans, at least the well-to-do ones.

The Roman Republic followed Rome’s kingdom and, by the rise of the Roman empire in the late first century B.C., Roman senators — who also got to wear the toga (though not purple ones) — had the right to wear red sandals. Besides senators, the emperor and members of the patrician class eventually received the right to wear red sandals.

When the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity as a state religion in 313 A.D., it was not long before he extended the privilege of wearing royal purple to Christian bishops. Other privileges followed — such as the donation of several Roman basilicas (including what became St. John Lateran) to the church.

When the seat of Constantine’s empire moved to Constantinople in 330 A.D., royal privileges took on an Eastern flair. One was the Byzantine artistic custom of artwork showing important people attired in red shoes — from the emperor to the Blessed Virgin and angels. (The patriarch of Constantinople, though, never received the privilege of red footwear.)

Of course, the reason for popes wearing red has less to do with the Roman Empire than with the love of Christ. It’s the same reason why cardinals today wear red and why bishops wear purple (considered a form of red, in their case). As the Vatican website notes, “The red papal shoes are linked to Christ’s own bloodied feet as he was prodded, whipped and pushed along the Via Dolorosa on his way to his crucifixion. The red papal shoes also symbolize the submission of the pope to the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ.”

We also know that cardinals wear red because they must, like Christ and the martyrs, be ready to lay down their lives for the church.

For all these reasons, until the 16th century, the pope wore a lot of red — and not just shoes. However, Pope St. Pius V, elected in 1565, was a Dominican priest. The Dominicans’ habits are white. So, in 1566, Pope Pius changed the papal clothing color to white — except for the shoes, the cappello (a broad brimmed hat) and the short papal cloak (called a camauro).

Over the centuries, the papal red shoes had developed into slippers, most often made of velvet and trimmed with a gold cross. Since the pope did not travel outside the Vatican often — and when he did so, it was on a papal throne — the need for hard-soled shoes was virtually nonexistent. The gold crosses on the slippers developed because of the custom of kissing the papal foot.

Kissing the papal shoe was a custom that Pope Paul VI did away with. He also abolished the gold crosses on papal footwear, though he did continue to wear red shoes, most famously on his 1964 trip to the Holy Land.

Pope John Paul II also wore red shoes for a while after his election, but soon did away with those and switched to brown shoes. However, he — along with Paul VI and John Paul I — were buried in red shoes.

Pope Benedict returned to the custom of wearing red shoes, this time made of Moroccan leather. However, even though some people said so, Benedict’s shoes were not made by Prada, Italy’s luxury fashion house. Instead, the shoes were made by a cobbler by the name of Adriano Stefanelli, who had also made shoes for Pope John Paul II.

In 2002, Stefanelli was so moved by Pope John Paul II’s obvious physical limitations from Parkinson’s disease that the cobbler decided to make — and donate — a pair of red shoes to the pontiff. That started his tradition of papal service and he made shoes for both John Paul and Benedict, never charging the Vatican for his services.

Word is that Pope Francis still uses the services of Carlos Samaria, his Buenos Aires cobbler for the past 40 years. And Francis’ shoes are black leather.


Sources: Catholic Exchange; wikipedia.com; litsymbols.blogspot.com; NBC News; “Catholic Encyclopedia; vatican.va; byzbets.wordpress.com; “The Pope’s Shoemaker” in Gentleman’s Gazette.



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