On my recent visit to the National Gallery in London I spent some time looking at the medieval collection. In the room with art from Cologne and West Germany I noticed a painting with one slightly odd detail. Saints Peter and Dorothy (1505-10) was painted by the Master of St Bartholomew Altarpiece (Netherlandish painter active 1470 -1510 who made several paintings for the Carthusian monastery in Cologne). Saint Dorothy, patron saint of gardeners is shown here with a basket of flowers.
Look at St Dorothy’s shoes. These are quite elaborate pointy shoes decorated with openwork, worn on top of pattens for protection from mud, but… how can she stand straight holding her feet in such a bizarre pose?
Feeling inspired by this fun little discovery I then had a closer look at other paintings in this room to see how other painters did their shoes. Many medieval and later artists were rather fond of shoes, and thanks to them we have a rather good idea of the changes in footwear fashion. The characteristic long pointy shoes are known as crakows or poulaines (although the term poulaine technically refers to the stuffed ‘toe’ part of the shoe).
Is the contorted stance of St Dorothy a deliberate attempt to show as much of her shoes as possible? This complicated pose pops up in other paintings too.
This is a detail from The Presentation in the Temple by the Master of Liesborn. Look at the elaborate red shoes with a silver clasp worn by Simeon (he is shown taking the infant Christ from the Virgin Mary). We cannot see the complete shoe, but by positioning the feet in this manner the painter made sure that both front and back are shown.
Let’s look at another painting in the same room – The Mass of St Hubert (1485-90) by the Master of the Life of the Virgin.
Again very similar feet arrangement – see the bearded figure sporting brown shoes in the background.
The other shoes in this painting are depicted with great detail. In the foreground, the figure to the left wears a red overtunic with white border, which is short enough to reveal wooden pattens, ankle-length shoes and matching black leggings or stockings. St Hubert who is shown approaching the altar, has left his pattens to the side. The little dog in the foreground is our clue to the identity of St Hubert who is the patron saint of archers and hunters.
In the last painting I wanted to comment on there are plenty of shoes on show. It is the Presentation in the Temple (1460-1475), also painted by the Master of the Life of the Virgin.
Joseph, who stands on the left, behind Virgin Mary, is the only figure in the image wearing thick wooden pattens; his black shoes also do not match his white leggings, which likely emphasises Joseph’s humble background.
Simeon, who wears robes of a medieval priest lifts his foot to reveal a thin patten underneath his shoe. Almost everyone present in this scene points one of their shoes towards the viewer. Even the little statues supporting the altar point their bare feet towards us.
The statue on the right also stands in a pose similar to St Dorothy’s from the first painting. However, St Dorothy must be sticking her right leg forward, not the left, judging from the way her patten shows.
Medieval shoemakers did not feel the need to produce shoes tailored to left of right foot, although they were capable of producing very fanciful footwear. Many painters were rather keen on reproducing shoes in their art. Some of those elaborate poses made me wonder if anyone actually modelled for those artists, because St Dorothy’s pose must have been rather uncomfortable.
Further information about the artists and their paintings can be found on the National Gallery website: