The Origin and Symbolism of the Pope's Attire

Author: Agostino Paravicini Bagliani

The Origin and Symbolism of the Pope's Attire

Agostino Paravicini Bagliani

From red to white, a change commonly and incorrectly attributed to Pius V

Widespread opinion has it that the white cassock the. pope wears every day was introduced by Pope Pius V (1566-1572) recalling his life in the Dominican Order prior to his election to the Chair of Peter. This tale has no reliable source (not even the well-documented Gaetano Moroni includes it in his dictionary of historical ecclesiastical learning). Nevertheless it recurs regularly — even in the Pius V entry on Wikipedia whenever the colours of the pope's clothing spark public interest. This was the case from the very first day of the Pontificate of Pope Francis who has chosen to continue to wear the traditional white cassock while abandoning the red mozzetta, or elbow-length cape.
That Pius V was not the pope to introduce the white cassock may be noted simply by comparing Raphael's portrait of Julius II (1503-1513) with El Greco's of Pius V. As regards the white and red papal attire, the two portraits arc identical.
This leads to the question: when were the red and white papal robes introduced? What do the historical sources tell us and how should we interpret them?
In this respect it may come as a surprise that the first "article of the pope's clothing" mentioned in the sources is the red "mantle" [cope], a word that Dante puts on the lips of Pope Nicholas III permitting him to introduce himself: "know that I was cloaked in the great mantle" (Inferno, XIX 69). This confirms that for Dante the red mantle was the garment that distinguished the pope's office better than any other.
To learn more about this we must go back back in time to the pontificate of Silvester II (999-1003), Pope in the year moo. Indeed, we learn that Arnulf of Orleans accused him of sitting "on the sublime threshhold wearing a vestment radiating purple and gold". We do not know whether the Pope was truly clad in the red mantle at the moment of his election or whether it was a rhetorical reference to the Donation of Constantine, which states that the Emperor had donated "some imperial raiment" to Pope Silvester I (314-335), including the "purple cloak". It is certain that also for Peter Damian, one of the
major protagonists of the Gregorian Reform, the red mantle identified the papal office. Indeed the famous
cardinal provocatively asked the antipope Cadalus (1061-1064), whose election he contested: "have you perhaps been dressed in the red mantle of the Roman Pontiffs, as custom requires?".
The first pope to be solemnly invested with the red mantle immediately after his election was Gregory VII (1076). Already in the subsequent decades from Urban II (1088-1099) to Alexander III (1159-1181), historical reference to the Pope's red mantle was becoming more frequent. In mentioning the election of Urban II, (1088), for example, Peter the Deacon wrote: "having removed the linen cope (that is, the bishop's white linen cloak), they cloaked him in the purple [mantle] and... sat him on the papal throne".
Towards the end of the century, the ordines [Ordinals] of both Albino (1189) and of Cencio (1192) point out that immediately after the pontiff's election, the archdeacon or prior of the deacons mantled him with the red cope. In all these sources, therefore, the mantling [immantatio] is the ritual element that makes the legitimate candidate to pontifical dignity visible.
These sources, however, tell us only about the pope's red cloak and never mention the white cassock. This is another curiosity in the history of papal attire. In fact it was not until the late 13th century that a manual came out (the Ordo XIII,
which Pope Gregory X had had compiled in about 1274) that explicitly mentioned the Pope's white cassock. Since then all the Roman Pontifical manuals were to describe in ever greater detail that from the moment of his election the Pope put on vestments of two colours: red (cope, mozzetta, shoes); and white (cassock, socks).
However another coincidence should be noted immediately. About 10 years after the first appearance in a Roman Pontifical manual of the Pope's white cassock (which he wore every day) William Duranti, Bishop of Mende, the greatest medieval liturgist, gave a symbolic interpretation of the two colours of the Pope's vestments (1284). Duranti was perfectly acquainted with the ritual and symbolic practices of the papacy because he had had a long experience in curial offices since the Pontificate of Clement IV (1265-1268). Moreover his Rationale is held to be the most profound medieval book on liturgy.
William Duranti says: "the Supreme Pontiff always appears dressed in a red cloak. Beneath it, however, he wears a white vestment: because white signifies innocence and charity; the external red symbolizes compassion... in fact the Pope represents the person of the One who for our sake stained his clothing red" (III, chapter XIX).
There are those who will point out that William Duranti does not say that the red mantle was part of the imperial insignia which Constantine gave to the Pope. On the contrary he saw the red cloak as a symbol of Christ's martyrdom. The Dictatus papae preserved in the Codex of Avranches (late 11th century) had cautioned that "only the pope can wear the red cope as a sign of imperium and of martyrdom". The pope's red mantle is in fact the scarlet or purple mantle that the governor's soldiers threw over Jesus in the praetorium, before crowning him with thorns.
In short, the pope wears the red mantle not because it is an imperial symbol, but rather because it is an article of clothing whose colour refers to the martyrdom of Christ. But the white colour of the pope's cassock also refers to Christ. Indeed William Duranti maintains that white is a symbol of innocence, of Christ's innocence.
Also in their tomb popes were laid to rest dressed in their white papal vestments. However, black, the colour of mourning, was added to the white and the red. When the tomb of Boniface VIII in the Vatican Basilica was opened in 1605 (he had died 302 years earlier), his body was found to be incorrupt. Giacomo Grimaldi, a Canon of St Peter's, was thus able to give a precise description of the Pope's apparel. The Pope wore long trousers covering his legs and thighs "in accordance with the fashion of the time". They had a scarlet lining and the upper part had ornate silver buckles. His soutane was lined with white. The rochet [similar to a surplice] reached his heels, while his shirt was of Cambric lawn. His black silk tunic had narrow sleeves and was bordered with brocade with lions woven of silk and gold on a blue background. He was wearing black silk stockings. His ample long silk chasuble, was finely worked all over and the pallium he wore was of the finest white silk, embroidered with golden crosses and thorns, one of which was placed on the centre of the breast, and the other on the left arm.
William Duranti's definition of the pope's white and red vestments became a classic. Never forgotten, • it was to be taken up by liturgists, masters of ceremony and canon lawyers, as well as by the Roman Pontiffs themselves, at least until the 18th century. Referring to his election in the third person, Pius it (1458-1464) was to claim that he had "worn the white tunic of Christ". However the Avignon Pope Urban V (1362-1370) said that the pontiff should always wear a linen rochet: indeed "he' represents the divine person of Christ in the universal Church; so that the extrinsic whiteness of the rochet (that is, the Roman alb) symbolizes natural purity". Later, the Ordinal of Agostino Patrizi Piccolomini (5484-1492), compiled at the orders of Innocent VIII (1484-1492), maintained that the Pope was under an indispensable obligation to wear red and white vestments every day. "When dressed in non-sacred attire, the pope must only wear red on top of the rochet: beneath the rochet the pope must always wear the white robe and red socks, and sandals decorated with golden crosses".
The mention of the latter reminds us that a cross was embroidered on the pope's "sandals" (namely, shoes) at that time, and perhaps even already in the pontificate of Boniface VIII. Melozzo da Forli's magnificent fresco, now in the Vatican Picture Gallery, shows this. It portrays Sixtus IV, seated on the throne while investing Bartolomeo Platina (1421-1481) as the first Prefect of the Vatican Library.
The conclusion is self-evident. At least three centuries before the Pontificate of Pius V, the symbolism concerning the Pope's red and white vestments was the object of great attention on the part of liturgists and papal masters of ceremony for the very reason that the colours of the papal vestments symbolically sustained the Pope in his role as Vicar of Christ.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 August 2013, page 11

For subscriptions to the English edition, contact:
Our Sunday Visitor: L'Osservatore Romano