Boasting a population of over 1.3 billion globally, the Catholic Church is one of the largest religions today, contributing towards Christianity as a whole being the most popular religious group in the world. Symbolism is a key aspect of Catholicism, forming a rich heritage that is synonymous with believers of the faith from all corners of the globe. For every gesture and symbol practiced as part of the faith, there is a steep tradition and symbolism that explains exactly what each symbol means.
There are many symbols that are used throughout Catholicism. The crucifix is the most recognized symbol of the religion, symbolized as a cross in the other denominations of Christianity, featuring prominently above the altar during Mass and representing how Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world and to redeem humanity. The Sacred Heart is another key symbol of the faith which features a flaming, bleeding heart that is encompassed with the crown of thorns worn by Jesus during his crucifixion. The Sacred Heart represents Jesus’ divine love and the passion that he possessed towards humanity as a whole, providing humanity with eternal love. A further symbol is the use of red leather shoes worn by several popes throughout history, offering rich symbolism and liturgical meaning.
Red papal shoes may appear mysterious, but there is a simple explanation surrounding their use. Red shoes have long signified during history that the wearer of the shoes possessed a high status and high ranking power. Wearing of such red shoes has been well documented for this symbolic purpose since the Etruscan era when kings wore red shoes to signify their power and authority, labeling the color royal purple due to the difficultly of obtaining the red-purple color shade at that time.
The use of wearing red shoes continued to be related to possessing a powerful status throughout further history, witnessing aristocracy and Roman emperors accessing this custom. As a powerful entity, the Roman Catholic church began to adopt similar customs, with officials across Rome wearing red shoes. White shoes began to see popularity in the sixteenth century, with the papacy of Pope Pius V, however. During this century, members of the clergy wore white shoes, with white used to symbolize purity and holiness. However, the red color remained a powerful symbolism for those in the utmost power, such as the Pope, who is the head of the church.
It was deemed that as well as demonstrating the power of the wearer, the Pope would wear red shoes to symbolize the Passion of Christ and the notion that the Pope, whilst possessing such a powerful status, is the subject of Christ. A third representation is additionally present, however, with red signifying the blood of the Pius Martyrs who had been killed, giving their life for the faith and for Christ. The red papal shoes were brought to the attention of the wider outside world by John Paul II, a Pope who began his papacy in 1978 and who continued to be Pope in the Vatican through to his death in 2005.
Red papal shoes are not a compulsory item of footwear or part of the necessary liturgical vestments for a Pope; however, with the shoes being an optional item that a Pope may choose to wear. The current Pope, Pope Francis, does not wear the traditional red shoe outside of the Vatican; however, with Francis being the first Pope to wear black, opting to show humility through his choice of plain black shoes. Pope Francis does still wear the red Pope’s shoes indoors; however, otherwise choosing his shoes to be made by shoemaker Carlos Samaria.
Traditionally, Popes would wear three different types of shoes on their feet as well as specific colors of their vestments. Whilst inside of the Vatican, red shoes which resemble silk slippers would be worn. During the celebration of Mass, episcopal sandals would be worn by Popes, although this tradition is becoming more outdated than others. Finally, when outside, the Pope traditionally wore outdoor red leather shoes, signifying their high status.
The Pope’s outdoor shoes are interestingly made with a leather content that comes from Morocco, and according to the highest traditions, would have a golden cross positioned in the center of the red shoe. The addition of a gold cross was, at one time, accentuated further through the inclusion of embroidered gold horseshoes during the papacy of Pope John XXIII, although this was a break from the normality of tradition.
The gold accents were removed to reveal a plain style during the later papacy of Pope Paul VI, with Paul VI deeming the gold accents and buckles favored by Cardinals as elaborate and lacking humility with the church’s congregation. In addition, the custom of kissing the Pontiff’s feet was stopped, ecclesiastical shoes lost their buckles, and the use of silk material in the silk slippers for use inside of the Vatican was stopped, instead choosing simplicity and demonstrating the tailormade approach to wearing red papal shoes.
Several Popes have been buried wearing red papal shoes, however, including Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II. Interestingly, during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, Benedict’s personal shoemaker Adriano Stefanelli has made the red leather papal shoe since the beginning of Francis’ papacy in 2013, with Benedict XVI opting for a brighter shade of red to be made than used for many years previous.