That curious time when every pope wore a beard

Owing to both papal and canonical disapproval, beards have been underrepresented in the Latin church. Whereas Orthodox hierarchs have long been barbate and bushy, Latin clerics have typically preferred naked cheeks and smooth chins. The Catholic Encyclopedia offers some background for this bias, but it’s fun to consider a period when this prejudice was sorely tested.

By my reading of things, it all starts with the papal election of 1455. The conclave had whittled down its options, and one of the finalists was a Greek cardinal named Basilios Bessarion (1403-1472). Though he had abandoned the eastern church, he retained the Orthodox habit of wearing his beard long and full.

At one point in the final deliberations a French cardinal jumped to his feet and implored his fellow cardinals to reject Bessarion. “Shall we give a Greek pope to the Latin Church?” he started. “Shall we make a neophyte the supreme head? Bessarion has not yet shaven his beard. . . .” That Jesus and the apostles likely had beards must not have occurred to him. Said Bessarion’s opponent in so many words, We can do better.

In his place, the conclave elected the beardless Callixtus III. Born Alfons de Borja, the Italians knew this Spanish cardinal as Alonzo Borgia. The Borgias are sometimes considered Europe’s first crime family. While Callixtus’ reputation was faultless, his nephew later became pope and is primarily remembered for his many illegitimate children and general corruption — though he did possess a pristinely hairless chin.

More than even the papacy, Bessarion’s beard might have also cost him his life. Remaining active in church affairs following the conclave, he suffered another embarrassment while on embassy to France. During a meeting with Louis XI, the king took a disliking to him and yanked his beard while saying that Greeks are partial to their barbarism — surely the kind of pun that garnered chuckles from the court. For his part, Bessarion was so humiliated by the indignity that he died on the way home.

But poor Bessarion was just a man before his time!

About fifty years after the conclave Pope Julius II (1443-1513) stopped shaving for a couple of years to mourn the wartime loss of a city. The habit skipped a couple of popes but Clement VII (1478-1534) also let one grow when Rome was sacked in 1527 by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Some criticized Pope Clement for his beard, which he maintained until he died. But to his defense swung the humanist Pierio Valeriano who penned Pro Sacerdotum Barbis, which as the title of the tract suggests is about priests and their beards. If your Latin is any good, you can read it here. My Latin isn’t, and so I rely instead on the summary provided by Kenneth Gouwens in Remembering the Renaissance:

Tellingly, the Pro sacerdotum barbis locates the causes of Rome’s sufferings in the “feminine” delicacies of the Roman clergy, which had provoked the wrath of God and threatened to do so again. Because of the excesses, God “commanded that our goods be taken from us, that our rather sumptuous houses be either brought down or burned, and that the many delights of our too-wanton minds be plucked away from us.” The wearing of beards, then, signifies the effort to reform the “effeminacy” into which the clergy had slipped. (p. 151)

Charles V, after all, had a beard.

Valeriano’s treatise did the job. The beard was back from exile — but only for a while. Portraits of popes from Clement VII to Urban VIII (1568-1644) feature full beards, some quite bushy and bristly. The preferred style shrank to a narrow goatee and mustache with Innocent X (1574-1655) and stayed that way until Innocent XII (1615-1700) took the fashion with him to the grave. No pope has worn a beard since.

Feel free to make more than is warranted of the correlation between that sad fact and the world going to hell in a hand basket during all the many years that followed.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • Poqui

    A beard does show a full commitment to a cause. There’s no hiding or “taking days off” your ministry. It’s an interesting insight.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Hadn’t thought of that.

  • frjohnmorris

    The Coptic and Greek Orthodox Popes of Alexandria both have beards. Why cut your face up every morning when you do not have to?

    • Joel J. Miller

      Amen. There was actually a discussion around this when Pope Francis was elected because of the few Eastern Catholic cardinals (sort of like the situation with Bessarion). The London Telegraph highlighted one guy in particular they were certain was out. Moran Mor Baselios Cardinal Cleemis, Catholicos of the Syro-Malankarese, has a wonderful beard — and probably no future hopes of becoming pope in the next conclave.

  • Wally

    All of the earliest “Popes” (Bishops) back when they were still Orthodox (before 1054) would surely have had beards…

    Oh, and I’ll also just leave this here too:

    “How womanly it is for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, and to arrange his hair at the mirror, shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them!…

    For God wished women to be smooth and to rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane. But He adorned man like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him as an attribute of manhood, with a hairy chest–a sign of strength and rule.”

    + Clement of Alexandria, 2.275

    Beardliness is next to Godliness


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