Girolamo Savonarola’s ‘Bonfire of Vanities’ took place in Florence, Italy on February 7, 1497.
Giralamo Savonarola was born at Ferrara in 1452 to a noble family. At the age of 22 he joined the Dominican order at Bologna. His first attempt at preaching, in 1482, did not go well but his zeal was subsequently noted and he was recalled to Florence in 1489 to appear in the pulpit of San Marco. His message decrying the sinfulness and apostasy of the time struck a chord and earned him respect as an inspired preacher. Prophet-like, Savonarola denounced the “worldliness of the clergy and the corruption of the ruling class.”
Florence at that time was under the influence of Lorenzo Medici, the Magnificent, who had promoted the humanist revival in art and literature. Savonarola’s rejection of those values put him at odds with the adherents of the Medici. Lorenzo Medici died in 1492 and in 1493 Savonarola was put in charge of a reform of the Dominican order in Tuscany.
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Savonarola’s Biblical preaching called the masses to repentance and a genuine pre-Reformation moral revival broke out. His focus on the book of Revelation and his predictions about coming events amazed the people and as many as 10,000 came to hear it at one time. His status as a prophetic voice was well established.
From that time Savonarola preached the need for political revolution to re-establish morality and true religion. He predicted the arrival of the French, who did come to Florence. Then, with the French withdrawal, Savonarola established a republic and his party, known as the “Weepers” held the reins of power.
Savonarola’s republic of Florence was declared to be a Christian Commonwealth, with God as sovereign and the Bible as the legal code. Vice and worldliness were prohibited, including gambling and vanity of dress. In the spirit of this new republic and the resurgence of piety the people brought their various luxurious possessions and vain and evil things to cast onto huge bonfires. Thus this purging fire was dubbed the “Bonfire of Vanities”.
A ‘youth army’ of 6,000 young people who had been converted through his preaching, marched through the streets helping people renounce their worldly ways and discard their worldly possessions.
From his cathedral pulpit Savonarola commanded that a massive pyramid be erected in the Piazza – 60 feet high and 240 feet in circumference. Into this structure were brought mirrors and rouge pots, beauty lotions and wigs, masquerade costumes, playing cards and dice, books on occult practices, immodest paintings – done by some of the greatest artists of the age. Filled with the ‘vanities’ of this world the Venetian ambassador offered to buy it for a vast sum. Savonarola refused.
“On Shrove Tuesday, 7 February, 1497, the guards advanced with their flaming torches, the silver trumpets sounded, the bells in the tower began to peal and the pile of vanities was set on fire.”
This Italian reformer has been called “a trail blazer for John Calvin”. Who’s Who in Christian History (Tyndale House) notes that Girolamo Savonarola was characterised by religious zeal and personal piety – “and seems to have believed in justification by faith…”
Warren Wiersbe describes him as “one of the greatest preachers of all time”! (Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers, page 167).
Savonarola’s hold on political power proved challenging. He was charged with heresy by Rome and was forbidden to preach. His political and legal system did not function well and efforts were made to reinstate the Medici family to power.
He was excommunicated in 1497. The plague struck at that time. A second “bonfire of vanities” led to riots in 1498 and the Medici came to power at the next elections.
Savonarola was tried for falsely claiming to have seen visions and uttered prophecies, for religious error, and for sedition. He was severely tortured for more than a month. Yet during that time he also wrote devotional works on two of the psalms. Those works were later published by Luther.
Savonarola confessed under torture and was declared guilty. Thus, on May 23, 1498, Savonarola and two Dominican disciples were hanged and burned, still professing their adherence to the Church.
Before his death Savonarola’s robes were removed and the bishop said, ‘I separate you from the church militant and from the church triumphant’. To which Savonarola replied, ‘You have no power to separate me from the church triumphant to which I go!’ He was 46 years of age.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com