Solid gold rings velvet capes and ermine furs are out, humility is in: Pope Francis has shunned Vatican tradition in favour of a simpler style — and perhaps committed a clerical fashion faux pas in the process.
From the moment he stepped out in plain papal whites to wave to the crowds from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, the difference between the Argentinian pontiff and his rite-loving predecessor, Benedict XVI, was startling clear.
No lace, no frills, and instead of a gold cross, Francis wore the iron one he has had since he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992.
The pontiff has also chosen a modest papal ring in silver rather than gold, and one designed decades ago rather than one created specifically for him.
The “Fisherman?s Ring”, which originally served as both a symbol of the papacy and a seal, is usually cast in gold for successors to St Peter’s chair.
“The pope’s decision to renounce precious things and avoid materials such as gold is very much in keeping with his desire to emphasise the religious symbols themselves, not what they are made of,” said Rome jeweller Paolo Picciotti.
“It’s not great news for us goldsmiths, but I personally think it is a potent gesture which holds a message of renewal for the Church. It’s an obvious choice also for a pope who comes from a poor country,” the 54-year-old said.
The pope’s wardrobe pays homage to his namesake, 13th-century St Francis of Assisi, who famously shunned family riches to live a simple life — though Francis’s more modest accessories are still a far cry from the saint’s sandals and sackcloth.
Francis, the son of working-class immigrants, chose a gold-plated silver ring modelled on a design by Italian sculptor Enrico Manfrini — who died in 2004 — which depicts a bearded and haloed St Peter holding the keys to heaven.
“The ring can be just as symbolic if made out of less noble materials than gold, as it was during the Roman Republic,” said Claudio Franchi, whose studio designed the elaborate gold ring for Benedict in 2005 that he wore throughout his reign.
“It is quite unusual, however, to use a ring which already exists or is based on a design which already exists. It’s a break with tradition,” he said.
Like John Paul II, who reigned from 1978 to 2005, Francis has also done away with the age-old papal custom of wearing red shoes, preferring to stick with black.
Benedict, who revelled in reviving old Vatican rituals, wore red shoes said to symbolise the blood of Jesus Christ and Catholic martyrs.
Francis, on the other hand, wears shoes which were given to him by a friend, who rescued him from being elected whilst wearing loafers with holes in them.
According to the Vatican, the then archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was setting off for the conclave when a friend told him he could not go anywhere in shoes that were in such a bad state and bought him a new pair.
He has also been caught out by Italian fashionistas for wearing black trousers which showed through his white robes — a faux pas which sparked Italy’s La Stampa daily to ask “when have you ever seen a pope dress like this?!”
For his inauguration mass on Tuesday, Francis will be wearing ceremonial vestments designed by tailor Paolo Serpone from Naples in southern Italy.
“In keeping with his desire for a poor Church which looks after the poor, we have designed a very simple vestment in inexpensive material. White, decorated with subtle gold images of the cross and bunches of grapes,” Serpone said.
The tailor, who has made ceremonial robes for John Paul II and Benedict, said the vineyard was a symbol of life and resurrection in Catholic imagery — and a simpler image than those favoured by “the more Baroque, glitzy Benedict”.
“The grapes symbolise our joy. When Christ miraculously turned water into wine, it was to celebrate. These robes may be simple and inexpensive but you do not need riches to celebrate a new beginning,” he said.
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