The Pope’s Red Shoes

Today, in pursuit of all things Relevantastic in Byzantium, I discuss the Pope’s red shoes.

This traditional choice of footwear has hit the headlines recently because the new Pope, Francis I, chose to forego this luxury maintaining his way of living in humility and austerity. While I find the immediate symbolic message of solidarity with the poor exciting and am curious where the new Pope’s sturdy brown loafers will lead him, there are exciting and still-relevant tidbits from Byzantine history buried in these choices.

The history of red footwear has ancient roots. It seems there have always been elite, aristocratic, and privileged members of society who have worn red shoes.

Some trace this history as far back as the Etruscans who lived in the region now called Tuscany. There, in the fifth century BC, red shoes were dyed using the most expensive dye, a Phoenician “purple” (what we now see as red), made from the scored bodies of molluscs. I find it doubtful that when the Romans were establishing their new system of religious hierarchies that they simply transferred the traditions of dress and rank from old Etruscan models and the Roman Senate. After all, when Constantine relocated the Roman capital in the east in the city of Byzantion in 330, many historians argue he was trying to get away from the Senate and their observance of traditional polytheistic religion. The large gap in the historical record from Etruscans to Roman Christians deserves at least some attention and that’s where our Byzantines enter the story.

I’d like to suggest that a more fruitful and concrete connection may be made between the red shoes or boots of Byzantine emperors and the footwear of Roman popes. Emperors and immediate family are always shown wearing the same high boots coloured red/purple and decorated with rows of pearls at the tips and ankles. These are called tzangia (tzantion, singular) and are regarded as one of the most revered insignia of imperial authority. The tradition of using red/purple shoes decorated with pearls probably comes from the Persian east and is probably connected to the increasing use of calvary in military procedures.

In Byzantine visual culture, other elevated and celebrated beings are also shown wearing red shoes. The Virgin Mary is often shown wearing red shoes or boots, although hers are not decorated with pearls. Angels, too, are shown wearing red boots especially when they are also dressed in imperial garments such as the loros. The cloisonné enamel reliquary pictured above shows the Virgin and Archangels in their imperial regalia with bejewelled red footwear completing their elaborate dress.

Why would did the western papacy adopt red shoes as a part of the insignia of the office? In 313 following the Edict of Milan, bishops, including the Bishop of Rome, gained the privilege of wearing purple. Before that time, purple was only allowed to be worn by the most powerful, elite members of society—no Christian hierarch could attain that level of social status before Constantine’s edict. Byzantine emperors, who held much more religious authority and were involved in religious matters as much as civil ones, were an ideal model for the Roman clergy and hierarchs to imitate.

The christian symbolism of these shoes goes beyond the red blood of Christian martyrs. Beyond the red uniform of cardinals who are identified by their red robes and vestments. Beyond the liturgical red used for vestments during Pentecost and on other feast days. They also represent more than an imitation of ancient civilizations—Etruscan and Persian—in more modern contexts. These expensive and ornate shoes are meant to assert a degree of impracticality to the emperor’s movements. They elevate the wearer’s movements to a heavenly or other-worldly sphere. This metaphysical difference between the wearers of red shoes from their mundane companions is but one example of the many ways in which the bodies of rulers are used to hang props of power, identity, and agency.

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