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Shoes as symbols in art

The subject of desire

Pumps, flat shoes, sandals, clogs, jack boots and felt boots as well. Shoes change the manner of movement, body language and self-awareness. They upraise your emotions and physical feelings. An attentive person can identify the character and financial standing of his companion by his shoes only, currently in particular by a lot of styles and models, which are available. Though, some hundred years ago the situation was different. Special regulations strictly prescribed shoes appropriate for different classes of society; their depictions in painting, on portraits or everyday scenes contributed additional senses and helped to individualize the character.

Golden sandals of Aphrodite

Sandals are the oldest shoes. Up to now this favorite shoe model has taken its place in the ancient art.

Gustave Flaubert admired the sandals of the ancient Greece on the legs of the Apollo Belvedere statue; he highly appreciated the exquisitely crafted twisted straps demonstrating sculpturesque genius of Greek masters. What a composition of decoration and nudity! What a harmony of the form and content! The feet were created for shoes and the shoes were created for the feet!

The golden sandals of Aphrodite have likely become the first erotic fetish. Numerous replicas of the ancient Greek statues of Aphrodite taking off her sandal are the evidence of the above.

The most well-known among them is the Aphrodite, Eros and Pan, c. 100 BC, from Delos. The charming woman tries with a sandal to keep Pan, a goat-legged forest creature, at a distance. A small winged flying Eros watches amused the situation (or actually helps Pan to approach Aphrodite). Aphrodite the goddess of love seems not to be always willing for an erotic adventure. When it comes to her sandals (the goddess is nude), we can say they are a symbol for femininity.

The other popular subject matter with sandals playing the key role is the myth about Aphrodite and Hermes who fell in love with her and was rejected; then he asked help of Zeus his father. The king of gods sent an eagle to steal one of her sandals. To retrieve it, she was forced to submit to Hermes.

The barefooted righteous and mailed kights

Put in other words a notorious phrase popular in the Soviet Union, that sex had never existed there, we could say that no legs were painted in the artworks of the Early Christianity. Everything related to flesh was dogmatically rejected and masked in folds of robes. So, unlike the gorgeous Byzantine style the medieval shoes had no decorations, nether embroidery nor ornaments. Dresses were strict and formal and shoes were integral parts of them.
When it comes to religious subjects all the canonical characters were depicted barefooted like in the artworks the Creation of Adam, the Creation of Eve, the Expulsion from the Garden of Paradise and others by Master Bertram of Minden (1340 — 1414).
At the same time the warriors ready to fight for the right things were painted along. The important parts of the uniform were the appropriate shoes allowing the warrior to move comfortably and to fight, the shoes allowing reaching out peace. The warriors of Christ had to be ready to hold their ground.

So, in his artwork the Knighting of St. Martin (1320 — 1322) Simone Martini pictured the court everyday life and the scene of Martin’s investiture: the Roman Emperor fastens the sword around the knight’s waist and attires spurs. We could assume that the event was significant. (The artist is supposed to be knighted by the King Robert of Anjou and depicted an actual investiture).

David by Donatello (1430), a bronze sculpture, is ready to preach peace. The biblical hero David — a winner of the giant Goliath, became one of the favorite images of the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
, a patron of Florence. According to the legend, David refused the armor and weapons and he went out with his sling and confronted the enemy. The youth is completely naked, apart from a laurel-topped hat and boots, bearing the sword of Goliath.

His boots indicated that he won Goliath due to the knowledge imparted him by the prophet Samuel. At the same time the sculptor highlighted the status of David; according to the old Jewish tradition, only noble people had shoes and wore them outside, poor people were barefooted or had rough boots made of leather and wood.

Cozy house and strong marriage

During the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
era in the XVI century respectable citizens had to wear indoor slippers. In the memories of a lot of people of that time slippers were mentioned as a symbol of comfort and fidelity to the marriage vows.

In his artwork the The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), Jan van Eyck depicted a pair of pattens embodying the martial fidelity. The bridegroom is portrayed barefooted standing on the wooden floor, his wooden pattens are on the floor next to him. The legs of the bride are covered with her robe, the other pair of pattens is depicted on the background next to the bed.

For the Jan van Eyck’s peers the taken off shoes pointed to the Old Testament. During the wedding ceremony the floor of a room was like a sacred land for a bride and a bridegroom.
The pair of clogs pictured in the artwork the Netherlandish Proverbs (1559) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder could be assigned to symbolic images. The Master was well-known for his interest in the life of peasants. The clogs are obviously waiting for their owner in vain.

Glamour in the acqua alta times

One of the most contradictory models of shoes discussed by art experts is the Venetian chopines (wedge shoes), which you can see in the painting the Two Venetian ladies by Vittore Carpaccio (1460/1465 — 1526). Till the present day the question whether the ladies are courtesans or not is still under discussion.

We wish the painted chopins had told us what those ladies really were. That time in Venice all the women wore shoes with high soles, the city often experience floods (acqua alta), at the same time the height of chopines (up to 50 cm) was strictly regulated by the Law. Movement on such stilts was difficult and dangerous especially for pregnant women and the problem of a low birth rate was urgent. So, the respectful ladies were not dominating to some extent.

Royal shoes

The centuries revolved, dresses progressively became shorter and shorter and dandies had a chance to make boast of the decorations of their gorgeous clothes. We are not going to discuss changing in style and shape of shoes, which were made either longer or shorter. We cannot but mention heels (the higher the more notable a person was); Louis XIV, a king of France known as a French fashion-monger became a trendsetter.

The Sun King was proud of his beautiful legs and his elegant shoes. He, as a king, made a decision that red high heels (decorated with battle pieces) were his own prerogative. So red heels became a symbol for the royal power.

A token of affection

One could hardly conceive of a courteous chevalier amorously kissing a chopine of his ladylove (keeping in mind the size of the shoe model). So, in the XVIII century stunning mule shoes came into fashion from the Oriental countries and only rich people afforded them. They were were usually high heeled, backless and often closed-toe. Noble ladies and dandies wore them indoors and craftsmen made them of expensive outlandish materials, decorated them with gold, gems, feathers of exotic birds, silk embroideries and pieces of fur. Those household articles in paintings demonstrated domesticity and prosperity of the pictured family.
When the light-minded rococo came, the cheerful dwellers of salons turned their shoes into a must of their love affairs. Jean-Honoré Fragonard clearly depicted this trend in his artwork the Swing, also known as the Happy Accidents of the Swing (its original title). The painting was supposed to be commissioned by Baron de Saint-Julien (1732 — 1806), well-known for his moral liberty. The artist added a shoe thrown up in the air symbolizing lost of innocence to the dynamic depiction of the scene.
The mule shoe in the painting Olympia (1863) by Édouard Manet implies the same symbolism
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Read more Symbolism is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-1880s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway, and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if an artist came to quiet despair, but he was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.

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. The model is nude wearing only a mule slipper, which will move to the graphic artworks by Aubrey Beardsley, who will bring this symbol of eroticism and sexuality to perfection. In the early XX century only prostitutes wore such mule shoes; no respectable lady dared to put on such kind of footwear.

The king is not dead. Long live the king.

Andy Warhol was the only artist who made shoes an individual subject of his art. His own creative approach allowed him to eliminate the long contradiction between the pop culture, art and routine life. His images dictated nothing but his models highlighted the individual features of each woman: heels of numerous colors, different shapes and materials. That was a real showcase and a triumph of ambitious, free and sexy women.