Prior Andrew O. post: ‘Thoughts On Papal Travel and Cardinals’ — April 11, 2012.
There is a widespread consensus that it was the Dominican Pius V (#226) [1566-1572], who continued to wear the white cassock of his old order, that established the practice of popes wearing white. The recent feast of Pius V had everyone talking about this, but in addition to that story not making any sense to me (if everyone knew he wore white because he was a Dominican, why would the next non-Dominican pope choose to wear white), I thought I had actually read somewhere that it was a nice bit of hokum, so I did some investigating . . .
I’m not sure where I originally heard that the Pius V origin was a legend. I did find several sources that claim that the tradition actually goes back to Innocent V (#186) [1276-1276], who was apparently the first Dominican to be elected Pope. Source 1; source 2; source 3 & source 4.
The thing that’s troubling about attributing the practice of the Pope wearing a white cassock to Pius V is that there are so many contemporary portraits of earlier popes wearing white cassocks.
This painting by Melozzo da Forli depicts Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484) and is a contemporary portrait (ca. 1477-1480). Sixtus is clearly wearing a white cassock.
Raphael’s portrait of Leo X with Cardinals (Luigi de Rosso and Giulio de Medici), ca. 1518-1519, also shows the pope in white cassock and red mozzetta.
Similarly Piombo’s portrait of Clement VII ca. 1531.
Also Titian’s 1546 portrait of Pope Paul III and his Nephews/Grandsons.
Now, having seen all of those portraits of popes in white cassocks and red mozzettas, what distinguishes the attire of Pius V in the usual portrait by El Greco (who lived in Rome and worked for Pius V)? As far as I can tell, the answer is: nothing. No innovation in papal dress whatsoever.
To be fair, I didn’t find any evidence of contemporary depictions of popes prior to Sixtus IV wearing white cassock, so I don’t know if we can really say that the practice goes back any farther than the 15th century, but it’s definitely older than Pius V. I did find this website, which shows all seven of the Avignon popes (1305-1378) wearing white cassock, but I don’t know if any of those portraits are contemporary.
On the whole, I don’t think substituting one Dominican (Innocent V) for another (Pius V) makes the story any more plausible. If everyone knew that the reason Innocent V wore white was because he was a Dominican and not because it was what Popes were supposed to wear, why on earth would his non-Dominican successors adopt the practice? Especially keeping in mind that Innocent V was only Pope for about five months. It’s not like people would have really gotten used to seeing the Pope in white during such a short time.
In conclusion, the practice definitely predates Pius V, but how far back it goes and why it started is still somewhat mysterious.