Girolamo Savonarola

A Dominican friar and prophet, living between 1452-1498, Girolamo Savonarola is considered the forerunner of the Reformation. A fasting, praying 15th century John the Baptist of his time, Savonorola's messages were fire, light, and searing conviction. Savonarola preached in Florence and led the sort of moral crusade that we call puritanical, more a fanatic than a saint, like most extreme puritans. Believing that God had given him the mission of calling people of repentance before the impending day of judgment, he preached powerful sermons which struck awe and terror into the hearts of the Florentines. His prophecies, which he believed were revealed directly to him by God, appeared to come true with miraculous accuracy. Foretold the death of Innocent VIII, the coming of a foreign power with a large army as a scourge of God, and the collapse of the Medici rule in Florence. His eloquent sermons and gift of predicting future events soon made him the most popular preacher in Florence. He criticized clerics and especially pope Alexander VI, whom he cursed for a devil and a monster presiding over a harlot church.

Savonarola received an expensive education and seemed destined to the profession of medicine. His youth was marked by an unfortunate attachment to a haughty Florentine girl. Through his rejection he became very dejected and very pious, assumed of course the ascetic type of piety, the only kind known at that time. He was not so much interested in dogma as he was in morals, a practical view of the evils in society.

Savonarola delivered, or rather stuttered out. He was ugly, though strong in feature, unimposing in presence, awkward in bearing and in gesture. He preached the words of Jesus, not the philosophy of Plato, and the Bible was the stuff of all his thoughts. His voice was weak and shrill and treacherous, his utterance vehement and rapid, his nerves unsteady. As a youth he had seen visions. He wrote to his father early in his monastic life: “And now the Prince of princes calls me with a loud voice, even prays me, O great love! with a thousand tears, to gird a sword on my side, and wishes to place me among His knights-militant. Fight!.”

His instinct did not deceive him, not even Bernard had more of it than he. Yet the Dominican convent at Bologna gave him, he said in after years, the two things he loved most dearly-liberty and peace. But he could not be tranquil with so much wickedness and suffering in the world about him. It speaks well for the Dominicans that they made this youth the teacher of his brethren, and urged him on to preach. He failed at Bologna and at Ferrara, as he failed afterward at Florence. Obvious enough, his first sermons were evasive. He shrank from the only message God had chosen for him. His speech was inarticulate, his thought confused because he was recoiling from the inevitable conflict. But directly he uttered his three propositions in words both plain and decisive the people crowded in to hear. In the mountains of Sienna in 1485, at Brescia in 1486 he first expounded them with unexampled effect: “The Church will be scourged. The church will be renewed. This will happen soon.” In the monastery, his brain affected by visions as by realities, fascinated by actual life, brooding constantly over its corruption in church and state, torn asunder by the alternate passion to smite and to heal, the outcry of the Hebrew prophet thrilled his nerves, and the vision of the Apocalypse spread its terror and its glory across the Tuscan sky. Sleepless nights filled with unutterable prayers, and Savonarola with his visions ceases to be a wonder. The roar of the coming flood was always in his ears.

Lombardy and northern Italy were already full of Savonarola’s fame, when Lorenzo de' Medici, the Magnificent, at the instance of Pico della Mirandola, urged him to return to Florence around the year 1490. It was the bane of his genius, perhaps, that his plans were too numerous and comprehensive. He attracted many enthusiastic followers among them Botticelli and Michelangelo. Savonarola was an ascetic of pure and blameless life. He was a magnetic orator. When he spoke, his listeners were aflame with enthusiasm. Savonorola's type of preaching was such that people fell into ecstasy and wept. Listeners paled, trembled, their "eyes glazed with terror.. tears gushed from their eyes; they beat their breasts and cried to God for mercy." The hairs of their heads stood up as they listened.

They accepted not only his program of religious reform, but also his political views concerning a democratic theocracy which proved to be his undoing. Alexander, incensed at his political and religious activities tried to destroy his popularity, bribed him with a cardinal's hat, demanded that he appear for a hearing in Rome, and forbade him to preach. He quickly defied the pope preaching it was man's duty to resist the pope when in error, appealed to a general church council against him. The forcefulness of his message made him the man of the hour among the Florentines and he virtually controlled Florence by 1492. Reached a climax in the carnival of 1497 where he had organized troops of boys and girls to tour the city, house to house, and begged the people to give up their gauds and vanities, from cosmetics to pagan books and paintings, the worldly things that turned their hearts away from true Christian living. And soon in the great square rose a great pyramid, fifteen stories high, carnival masks, rich dresses women's ornaments, wigs, mirrors, powder puffs, rouge-pots, lip-sticks, cards and dice, perfume and cosmetics, books of poems and on magic, musical instruments, trinkets of all kinds and worldly paintings in which Greek nymphs displayed their unclothed shapes. A Venetian merchant wrung his hands, and offered twenty thousand crowns to the city government for the pile. Instead he had to fling a valuable picture he owned on top of the heap. Excesses such as this led many people to desert him. Compulsory goodness was distasteful to many. He did not know that morals could not be restored overnight and could not be forced.

Pope Alexander VI believed in living and letting live - unless one were rich and a guest at a supper-party. Alexander excommunicated Savonarola and threatened to place an interdict upon Florence. An interdict meant the ruin of their commerce, for it would expose their goods to every robber on the highway and every pirate on the sea. His popular following began to disperse. Finally, to prove that their cause had divine support, Savonarola and some of his fellow Dominican friars agreed with the Franciscans to submit to the ordeal of fire but they could not agree on specific details and the ordeal was indefinitely postponed. The disappointed populace now turned against Savanorola and arrested him. Subjected to torture, he was forced to confess that his prophecies were not from God. He confessed at his trial that he had cherished great plans. Unable to find sufficient grounds for the charge of heresy, these were forged. Declared a heretic, accused of treason, Savonarola was condemned with two fellow friars, and the three hanged and burned. Although no miracle had saved him, as expected by his followers, the people were impressed by his faith and courage in the way he faced death and hailed him as a martyr and saint.

Savonarola was a monk known for his learning and his sanctity, but helpless, almost ludicrous, as a preacher. Had he dreamed less, he might have accomplished more. He was a Catholic through and through. Questions such as troubled Wyclif and Huss, and afterward Luther and Zwingli, had for him no meaning. His cry was the cry of John the Baptist: "Repent: for the kingdom of god is at hand." His life was more of a protest than a victory. He was an unsuccessful reformer, and yet he prepared the way for that religious revival which afterward took place in the Catholic Church itself. He was the contemporary of political, worldly, warlike popes, disgraced by nepotism and personal vices-men who aimed to extend not spiritual but temporal dominion. He taught the doctrine, then new, that the people were the only source of power, that they alone had the right to elect their magistrates. He seems to have foreseen the fatal rock on which all popular institutions are in danger of being wrecked - that no, government is safe and respected when the people who make it are ignorant and lawless. So the Constitution which Savonarola gave was neither aristocratic nor democratic. In the politics of Savonarola we see great wisdom, and yet great sympathy for freedom.
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