Girolamo Savonarola’s ‘Bonfire of Vanities’

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

Giralamo Savonarola Impacts Florence and is Martyred

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.