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Benedict the Fabulous

Ryan Z. Cortazar

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Since the death of John Paul II, the biggest news story to come out of the Vatican is that Pope Benedict XVI appears to be quite the clotheshorse. Other than the banning of gays from the priesthood, the media’s focus on the former Cardinal Ratzinger has centered on his red Prada loafers. At almost the exact same time that directives to ban gays from the priesthood began circulating, news outlets, perhaps in a cynical attempt at irony, printed numerous stories on the pope’s fashion sense, ranging from his Gucci sunglasses to his firing of the official papal tailors.

Depending on your point of view, these stories could be seen as either a playful glimpse into the human foibles of Christ’s vicar on earth or the troubled machinations of a deeply closeted, self-loathing gay man. Both interpretations, although sinfully fun, miss the point. The motives behind Benedict’s preoccupation with fashion are in fact more practical and thoughtful. By drawing attention to the clothes of his office, the pope enforces the authority of the papacy as an outward display of his power and holiness in a manner consistent with the whole history of the Church.

Clothes in the Catholic church are never just clothes. Although vestments predate their mystical symbolism, allegorical interpretations of them began to develop over a thousand years ago. The flamboyant garments are symbolically tied to Christ’s passion and serve to enforce the dogma of the Church. The cincture, for instance, a piece of rope tied around the priest’s waist, is not merely a belt; instead, it also functions as a reminder of the whips used to gruesome effect in The Passion of the Christ. The various symbolic interpretations of vestments are largely the realm of folk history and are not officially sanctioned by the Vatican; nevertheless, these interpretations ultimately serve the interests of the pope by enforcing the Catholic hierarchy.

The ornate beauty of the clothing and its mystical properties combine to create an image of power and sanctity that serves as a physical reminder of the power of the Church. The media’s focus on Benedict’s dress, while ostensibly silly, indicates the continuation of the Catholic history of using ornament and beauty as a central tool in spreading its religious message and asserting its authority.

While connecting Benedict’s Gucci sunglasses to the passion of Christ and papal authority may be a little far-fetched, the red Prada loafers have a rich history and symbolism rooted in Imperial Rome. Red slippers were an entrenched symbol of imperial authority much like a crown. Indeed, when the Western Empire dissolved in 476 A.D., the conquering German general Odovacar sent Romulus’ Augustulus’ scarlet shoes, along with his crown and purple robes, to the Eastern Emperor to notify him of the removal of his Western counterpart. Along with the Latin tongue and other trademarks of the Western Empire, popes and cardinals adopted the red shoes in the centuries that followed, and the imperial authority they signified transferred to the princes of the Church.

In addition to their role as a status symbol, the red shoes also have their own mythology. Within Western culture, shoes have particular weight as a symbol of identity and office. In the Catholic Church, the pope is often referred to as walking in the shoes of the apostle Peter. The foot of Peter in the basilica bearing his name bears the cumulative effects of pilgrims coming to touch and kiss his foot for hundreds of years. The Anthony Quinn movie The Shoes of the Fisherman stands as the pinnacle of this understanding in popular culture, and the phrase permeates all papal election coverage.

Although no fisherman in the history of the world has ever worn red Prada loafers, Benedict certainly knows the imperial history of red shoes and also probably knows that a symbol needs to be a little flashy to get attention. Even though Timberlands would probably receive just as much attention and be more culturally accurate (if not historically consistent), anyone who has read Mr. Blackwell knows you don’t wear boots with a long-hemmed cassock. Besides, whoever saw a fisherman in a dress?

Beyond the general cultural significance of shoes, the red loafers have complex implications within Catholic culture. They draw attention to the importance of feet in the New Testament from Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Jesus to Jesus’ washing of the apostles’ feet before the Last Supper. The Apostle Peter refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. Creating a symbol that has echoed ever since, Jesus argues, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later….Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Peter reacts by asking to have his head and hands washed, but Jesus refuses saying that Peter has already bathed and his body is clean, except his feet which must be washed.

A foot note in the Catholic Bible explains that interpretations of this encounter, claiming that when Jesus mentions Peter’s previous bath he is referring to baptism. The implication of this analysis yields that baptism is an imperfect cleansing ritual in which part of the individual, symbolized by the feet, remains unclean. As a result, “clean feet” can be seen as a symbol of the apostles; Benedict’s shoes, therefore, reflect his position as the successor of Peter, as well as a level of spiritual purity that the others do not possess. The redness of the shoes, a quality that any Catholic ten year old knows symbolizes the blood of the martyrs, dramatizes and enforces this connection. The vibrancy of the color draws the attention that the symbolic weight translates into sacred meaning.

Although red shoes have been a papal tradition for centuries, after Vatican II their presence had been increasingly downplayed. Pope Paul VI suppressed the use of red shoes and buckles for cardinals, reserving it for the papacy. He also discontinued the tradition of kissing the pope’s shoes as well as the use of the traditional red papal slippers in favor of more sensible red leather shoes. John Paul II wore a pair of more muted red leather shoes as well before abandoning them altogether for a pair of brown walking shoes. Ultimately, these common brown shoes were the ones chosen by him to wear at his burial. John Paul II was no theological revolutionary, and he certainly used his position to promote a historically strict theology. Still, his numerous travels and his preference for simpler clothing reflected a more relaxed relationship with the public.

Benedict’s decision to wear red shoes does not by itself reflect a tightening of the power structure of the Catholic Church, but the brazen manner in which the shoes were introduced and publicized eerily highlights a theological retrenchment that is taking shape under the new pontiff. The purge of gays from the priesthood in a document that labels them as “intrinsically disordered” was the first news on this front. It was followed by the excommunication of a priest and church council in St. Louis for refusing to hand over control of its assets to the Archbishop. Both extremes showcase a return to a stricter Church, organized under a more powerful pope.

But the Catholic use of art and design to broadcast a message of strength and authority in times of transition is not new. In response to the Protestant Reformation, Baroque art became the propaganda of the Counterreformation. As Protestantism embraced a simpler aesthetic, Catholic art became more extravagant. The new churches rejected such indulgences as idolatrous and sinful. Catholics, however, played up this dichotomy in order to assert their identity as well as influence the hearts and minds of everyday churchgoers who marveled at the glory of the cathedrals and representations of holy figures. Protestants may have offered a more intimate relationship to God through study of the Bible, but Catholics put on a better show.

Baroque art even became a way to emphasize the differences between the two opposing sides that were not purely aesthetic, but theological. If Catholic religious miracles were hard to believe, then Catholic artists effectively translated the unimaginable onto the canvas in scenes of stunning beauty. Masterpieces such as Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus and Murillo’s numerous paintings of the Immaculate Conception respectively glorified the miracles of Eucharistic transubstantiation and the purity of Mary, both central dogma of the Catholic Church rejected by Protestantism.

In modern times, it’s hard to imagine the most brilliant artistic minds using their skills to aid the Catholic Church. (How exactly would one portray gays banned from the priesthood?) Regardless, Benedict XVI has made it his personal mission to rescue Europe from its secular malaise and reassert the orthodoxy in the Catholic Church. To achieve this goal, he seems to be pulling out all the old tricks. Has nobody told him that retrochic is over?