This is the day that … Giralamo Savonarola was born to a noble family in Florence, Italy, in 1452.
At the age of 21, he left home secretly to join a Dominican monastery.
He was thirty when he preached his first sermons in St Marcos, Florence, resulting in ridicule and shame. “The disappointed thousands went away murmuring at the incompetence” of the preacher (Savonarola, by Rev. W. Rule, 1855, page 22).
For the next six years he retreated from the pulpit to master the art of preaching … and to study the Scriptures. His zeal was noted and he was recalled to Florence.
When he stood again in St Marcos, it was like a newborn John the Baptist, thundering out the Word of the Lord and calling sinners to repentance. “Tears ran profusely, mourners beat upon their breasts, crying to God for mercy; the church echoed and re-echoed with their sobs” (Prophets in Evangelism¸ by F. Barlow, page 159).
And among those whose sins he lashed was the infamous Medici – Lorenzo the Magnificent, Prince of Florence! Humanist notions had been promoted under Lorenzo. And even the Pope “who, though claiming to be head of the Church, was living openly in sin” came in for a powerful rebuke from this Italian ‘prophet’ (Yarns on Christian Pioneers, by E. Hayes, page 15).
Pope Alexander VI – one of the Borgia family – was denounced as “a heretic and an infidel”. Bear in mind that Savonarola was himself a Roman Catholic. But corruption and sin were rampant … and Savonarola attacked both clergy and civic leaders.
In 1493 Savonarola was given charge, as the first vicar-general, to reform the Dominican order in Tuscany, which he had proposed.
His great bonfire in the city plaza – 7 February, 1497 – saw the destruction of “lewd books, obscene pictures, carnival costumes, playing cards, dice, false hair, books on astrology and witchcraft – indeed anything that reeked of sinful living”.
The Venetian Ambassador offered him 20,000 gold ducats for his pile of ‘vanities’ heaped so high in a tiered pyramid. But Savonarola burned the lot!
The death of Lorenzo, and the invasion of France (destruction of the city averted by Savonarola’s face-to-face encounter with the French king), led to this remarkable preacher being the uncrowned ruler of Florence.
The republic of Florence was to be a Christian commonwealth, of which God was the sole sovereign, and His Gospel the law: the most stringent enactments were made for the repression of vice and frivolity. Gambling was prohibited and the vanities of dress were restrained by sumptuary laws.
It became a stronghold of puritanism … though not in doctrine!
By 1490 the tide of popular opinion was turning against him. Pope Alexander VI ex-communicated him (13 May, 1497). He was accused of heresy. He ignored the orders and continued in public office, but the next year the Medici were returned to power and Savonarola was ordered to stop preaching.
He was brought to trial for falsely claiming to have seen visions, and uttered prophecies, for religious error, and for sedition. Under torture he made avowals which he afterwards withdrew. He was declared guilty and the sentence was confirmed by Rome. On May 23, 1498, this extraordinary man and two Dominican disciples were hanged and burned.
A biographer records an interesting incident as Savonarola was led through the crowd to the place of his martyrdom. Some “broke through the police lines and slashed at his bare legs and feet with their knives and daggers …” But a poor old woman offered him a crust of bread. “Take and eat, Blessed Father Girolamo,” she said. He smiled, “Thank you, my daughter, but I need no food now. I have so little way to go. In a moment I will be in the mansions on high having sup with my Lord and Saviour” (A Crown of Fire, by P. van Paassen, page 313).
So it was, on 23 May, 1498, at the age of 46, he was hung and burned in the Plaza. During these final hours, the Catholic Bishop had said: “I declare thee separated from the church militant and triumphant.” To which Savonarola replied: “From the church militant, yes; but from the church triumphant, no; that is not yours to do!”
Luther spoke of Savonarola as “a pioneer of the Reformation” and another writer adds that this Dominican priest “seems to have believed in justification by faith” (Who’s Who in Christian History, page 608).
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.