Van Gogh’s Shoe in my Attic
I live in a space above the Shushan Grange Hall in upstate New York, and this spring I have been involved with the renovation of the building. Last week, while insulating the attic, an old, well worn, single shoe was found. Since many people have lived in this small town for generations, I brought the shoe to the post office to find out if anyone knew anything about it. The next day, the postmaster told me that many people said that when they renovated their houses they also found a single old shoe hidden in the wall. Some thought that it was a tradition that came from the Dutch to bring good luck and protect the house from evil spirits.
Shushan is about twenty miles east of the Hudson River and just over the border from Arlington, Vermont. While Shushan was settled by Finns, the region was full of Dutch in the colonial years. It seemed plausible to me that such a tradition could have come from the Dutch and then been adopted by others in the area. So, of course I went right to Google to see what I could find.
In Britain, worn shoes have been discovered walled up over windows, doors, or in chimneys, but also in staircases and under floorboards. The oldest known concealed shoe was found in the wall of Winchester Cathedral’s choirstalls. It was put there in 1308. [http://joannawaugh.blogspot.com/2010/05/shoes-in-wall.html]
This reminded me that years ago, while cleaning a Dutch house in White Creek, I found a pair of ice skates in the chimney. They were so old the blades were curved, like the ones in this painting by Gilbert Stewart:
Hidden shoes have been found throughout Europe and New England. They believe the tradition came from the Romans, who would bury originally a person and later shoes to represent the person under a building to keep the building from falling down. Later the old shoe was substituted. An old shoe was probably chosen because no one wanted to sacrifice a new one. But it has been speculated that the shoe was chosen to represent the soul of the buried person in the earlier sacrifices. And since an old shoe is molded to the shape of the wearer, it is more likely to contain the soul of the wearer. (No pun intended.)
With that in mind, I took another look at the paintings of shoes by Vincent Van Gogh, which are undoubtedly the most celebrated paintings of shoes in history. Philosophers and art historians alike have spilled lots of ink over the meaning of these paintings.
I think that Vincent knew what the former occupants of my building knew: the shoe carries the soul of the person who wore them.
The shoe from my building will find a new home at Shushan’s Covered Bridge Museum, or as we like to refer to it, “Shushan’s Attic”. In order not to disturb the good luck and protection this shoe has provided for the Grange, I have replaced the shoe with one of my own. One that I wore for many years while painting.
Concealed Shoes in Buildings, by June Swann, keeper of the shoe and boot collection at Northampton Museum
Concealed Shoes and Garments
The Slippers of Papillion Hall
Historians Puzzle over the Meaning of Centuries-Old Shoes in Castle Wall
Shoes in the Wall
Common Ridings and Beating the Bounds
If you go: